Starting a Book Club
How to Start
Do you like to share your thoughts about the books you’re reading? Looking for a way to spend some time with friends? Join a book club, or if you can’t find one you like, why not start your own? A book club is really as simple as a group of interested readers coming together, but in order for a book club to be fully successful, there are a few decisions that it’s helpful to make from the beginning. So do you want the short version or the long one?
The Short Version
Begin with two or three other book lovers/friends who agree to recruit at least one person each. Your goal is about 8 – 10 people, but don’t worry if your group is smaller or larger, or you don’t get perfect attendance. Discuss in advance how your group will admit new members.
At your first meeting, establish the basics.
· Set up a schedule for the first few months. Once every 4 – 6 weeks works well.
· Do you want to rotate homes or meet in a public venue like a library, restaurant, bookstore, synagogue, or community center? Be creative — vary the venue according to the book’s theme or setting. In a home, the host can set the tone with music or snacks that reflect the book under discussion.
· Decide whether the group wants a leader and if so, who — the host? Will you rotate leaders? Some groups hire a professional leader or facilitator.
Now you’re ready for your group’s most important decision: what to read?
If you want a little more detail or guidance, here’s a more in-depth outline of the foundational questions that are listed above (with a few suggestions and other considerations as well) AKA
The Long Version
1. Where are you going to meet?
· Someone’s house or a coffee shop, restaurant, etc.
· If you are meeting at someone’s house, discuss what is expected of the host (see below).
· Will the location rotate?
2. How often do you want to meet?
Usually 4 – 6 weeks works well, gives people time to read while keeping enough continuity.
3. How will books be selected?
· Will you a) decide on the year’s reading list in advance so people have time to get the books and read or b) decide on books one at a time (or some combination of the two)?
· If you aren’t deciding on the list in advance, will you decide what to read next a) at each meeting or b) by email?
· Will one person suggest titles for the group, each person gets to choose one of the books, or each person brings a suggestion or a few suggestions and everyone votes?
· What are people most interested in reading? Will your book group read only fiction? A mix of fiction and nonfiction? Will you have a particular genre focus? Are there categories you want to avoid (politics, science, self-help, etc.). Some of this you can decide as you go (e.g. if you read a short story book and discover that it doesn’t work for your group).
· Do you want to bring additional material (reviews, articles, interviews, etc.) around the book into the conversation as well?
4. How will the meetings run?
· Having someone lead each meeting is key for most book clubs, but will you hire an outside facilitator or keep it in the group? If the facilitator is a group member, will the job rotate or will one person take on the role? If you are meeting at someone’s house, is that person the leader for that meeting? Whoever it is should come up with a few questions to start the conversation and keep it going. Many books have readers’ guides available online or at the back of the book.
· If you are meeting in someone’s house, do you want food/drinks? Provided by the host or potluck?
· Is there a formal structure to your discussion or will it be more of an informal conversation? Will you begin each meeting going around the room to share thoughts or jump in with questions? Or do you start each time with a summary (in case someone hasn’t finished reading or if someone has read the book a while ago and doesn’t remember) or maybe by going around and giving general impressions (both to start the conversation, and to get a general sense of where people stand on the book so that there are no assumptions made)?
· Do you want to do themes? This can play out in which books you read, but also the food, music, location of meeting, even how people dress.
Then, there are a number of less important decisions that you can choose to make in advance or on an as needed basis.
A few examples:
· How does it work if someone new wants to join? Can anyone invite a new member or is it a group decision? Is there a maximum number of people that you want to allow so it doesn’t get too unwieldy. Can people join anytime or only in the beginning of the term.
· One thing that can be an issue (but might be odd to decide in advance) is how focused you want to stay. If some people really want to discuss the book and others are mostly there to chat, it can be a little difficult.This may be something you can deal with if it arises, although whoever is facilitating might want to know how “strict” to be on keeping the discussion to the book or not.
· Make sure that everyone feels that their contribution — be it time, money or input in the conversation — is fair and in proportion to everyone else’s. Some of this can be divided up initially (how much money a host should spend, etc.), but something like keeping everyone participating in a discussion is something that has to evolve and one of the traits of a good group/discussion leader.
Now you’re ready for your group’s most important decision: what to read?
Virtual Book Clubs
In a virtual world, all the basic questions to starting a book club pretty much remain the same, aside from where to meet and how to best use the platform. Below are additional resources to help you start and moderate a virtual book club!
1. Where will you be meeting?
·Zoom Meetings has worked well for book club discussions (you can easily see your full book club on screen!). It is important to have a Zoom host who has access to a Zoom account, ideally one that allows you to be on for longer than 40 minutes (40 minutes = a free Zoom account). An alternative free option for your book club is Google Meet.
·If you are using Zoom, it’s always best to make sure your book club members have upgraded to the latest version of the platform.
2. How to choose a Zoom host or moderator?
The Zoom host/moderator should be familiar with the platform and how to mute/unmute and assist the group in virtual hand raising (and lowering). The Zoom host should have every group member’s contact information so that s/he can send out the Zoom link prior to your book club meeting.
3. How many zoom hosts or moderators should you have?
If you can, you may want to have a second person who can jump in to help lead the discussion if the host (or others) are having technical difficulties and to help the host read questions from the chat box.
4. What is the best Zoom etiquette for a virtual book club?
We suggest the moderator should take the lead, at least initially, on calling on people and that if someone is not speaking, they remain on mute.
5. How big should my book club be?
We find that book clubs of 8 – 10, whether in person or on Zoom, typically work best for an interactive and thoughtful book club discussion. When using Zoom, we also suggest using gallery view rather than speaker view so that everyone can be seen on one screen.
6. How do you moderate the conversation?
·Set expectations at the beginning of the meeting (or the beginning of the club) about how everything will work. Who will lead the discussion? Will the “Zoom host” moderate every time? Will others share moderating duties? How long should people expect the call to last?
·The moderator’s job varies depending on the nature of the book club. For any book club, the moderator should go into the conversation with a list of discussion questions, whether they are created by the moderator or found somewhere online (JBC has lists of discussion questions plus the guides mentioned above, and publisher or author websites are also good places to look). This is important to ensure that there are not long gaps in conversation or tangents that overwhelm the discussion.
·As the moderator, you may want to create a PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation with discussion questions/prompts or other media. You can share your screen during the conversation so that others can view it while you discuss the book.
7. How can I make Zoom more engaging?
·If you have a larger book club, you may want to start the group together for a general discussion and then take advantage of Zoom’s breakout rooms to continue more focused discussions. You will need to make sure you have turned on the breakout feature in your Zoom account settings. If you go with this option, you will want to make sure you have a moderator or someone who can take the lead in each room. You will also need to have someone watching the time and managing the tech of the breakout room in case anyone gets stuck somewhere in the virtual land (i.e., they may need to stay in the “main” room or move between breakout rooms).
·It may also be fun to all drink the same cocktail or mocktail to kick off your book club that’s connected to themes of the book. Or perhaps a shared menu of snacks (JBC suggests book-themed snacks in its individual guides) or a playlist for the background! If there is a film adaptation or documentary or film short connected to the theme of the book, you can have someone share their screen to play it following the discussion. Or create a Netflix Watch Party to continue the discussion while watching (assuming the film is available on Netflix).
8. How will books be selected?
·Selecting a book for a Zoom book club is pretty much the same as it would be in person. Once the basic decisions are made — are you selecting a book at each meeting or for the whole year, are you reading (or avoiding!) certain topics, themes, or genres — then you are ready to figure out your next book.
·Not every book is great for a book club, even if it’s a wonderful read. In looking for an appropriate book, think about the topics or genres that work best, the length of the book that will realistically fit your book club’s time (if you are meeting every 4 weeks, a very long book may be less feasible than if you are meeting every 6 – 8 weeks), and choose a book that has something to discuss. A fiction book that is primarily based on descriptions or a non-fiction that is more a reporting of fact will likely generate less lively conversations.
·Since book clubs are all about interactions and engagement, it is often beneficial to include the book club members in the process of selecting books. Suggestions often come via word-of-mouth recommendations or members who find book reviews in print or online.
Additionally, Jewish Book Council has some great resources. From individual guides that you can download for free, to annual reading selection guides, to a searchable database of (thousands of) books, including books with discussion questions or books around a particular theme. You can also check out authors’ recommended reading lists on PB Daily or JBC’s own reading lists.