A bibliophile’s guide to creating — and sustaining — a great reading group.
Early in the coronavirus pandemic, Jane Meronuck and the puzzle lovers in her extended family started solving the New York Times Sunday crossword over Zoom. After George Floyd was killed by a police officer across the river from her St. Paul home in May 2020, the online gatherings evolved into deeper discussions about the aftermath.
“We helped each other process our feelings and shared the books we were reading to educate ourselves about the history of race in the United States,” Meronuck recalls. “My niece Reid, a youth-empowerment facilitator and cinematographer in Seattle, suggested we start an anti-racism book club and offered to lead the first meeting.”
Since then, Meronuck and her family have come together every three months or so to discuss a book. “The book club has definitely brought us closer together,” she says. “It has prompted discussions about privilege and injustice that, frankly, were long overdue.”
Meronuck and her family aren’t alone. During what some have called our “summer of racial reckoning” in 2020, many people were eager to educate themselves about racism and police violence. Books like How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, PhD; So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo; and The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, JD, flew off the shelves.
The book boom wasn’t limited to nonfiction either. Research conducted in November 2020 by Global English Editing found that 35 percent of those surveyed were reading more overall during the pandemic, and 14 percent reported reading significantly more.
Online book groups also blossomed during the pandemic. Between celebrity book clubs that had always operated online and local gatherings that shifted online out of necessity, virtual gatherings offered a way for people to stay connected when the coronavirus required that we stay apart.
According to a survey by BookBrowse from October 2020, 14 percent of virtual book clubs reported gaining members since the start of the pandemic, and 3 percent of respondents said their group actually started in 2020.
Considering how little time Americans devoted to reading before the virus struck (a mere 15.6 minutes per day on average in 2019), these new statistics are encouraging — especially given the growing body of research highlighting its many benefits.
Psychologists at the University of Toronto, for example, found that reading fiction was associated with an increased tolerance for uncertainty. After reading either a short story or an essay, participants who had read the fictional tale reported feeling less likely than those who had read the essay to require cognitive closure (a clear, unambiguous answer or moral), which may lead to improved decision-making and greater creativity.
Additional research from one of the study’s authors, cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley, PhD, suggests that fiction lovers are more socially adept, often exhibiting better social skills and greater empathy.
Although some veteran book-clubbers were less satisfied with their virtual experience during 2020, 47 percent noted that their club became even more important to them than it was previously. This may be partly due to the ability of books — and discussions about them — to provide a respite from difficult circumstances.
Yet, as Meronuck discovered, book clubs also offer the potential for members to engage more intimately with complex issues. We gain new perspectives when we read, and even more when we discuss what we’ve read with others — which often forges closer relationships.
And because book clubs can function in a more egalitarian way than other social groups, those discussions feel more inclusive, says University of Minnesota English professor Andrew Elfenbein, PhD, author of The Gist of Reading.
“The result is an experience that allows people the pleasure of both self-enhancement and self-improvement,” says Elfenbein.
This certainly rings true for Meronuck. “I don’t think book clubs are for everyone, but if you find the right subject and group to explore it with, it can help you see books, and learning in general, in an entirely new light.”
4 Tips for Creating a Successful Book Club
1. Find Your Crowd
Book clubs come in all shapes and sizes. If you’re just beginning to search for one to join or don’t want to join any of the groups you’ve discovered, BookBrowse publisher Davina Morgan-Witts suggests checking out your public library as well as community sites like Meetup to find groups that align with your interests.
If you still can’t find a group to suit your fancy, you can always start your own. BookBrowse offers practical advice on their website.
2. Set Expectations
There are no standard rules for running a book club, but setting expectations can ensure that all members enjoy the experience. If you’re starting a new club, laying groundwork at the outset can prevent problems from arising — and make resolving them easier if they do.
- Meeting time and location:Agree upon a time and a place or virtual platform that works well for most members, and try to stick with it. That will allow members to establish a routine and save that scheduled space for the meeting.
- Facilitator:Many book clubs designate someone to act as a discussion leader. This person ensures that everyone has an opportunity to speak — and gently redirects the conversation if it wanders too far off topic.
- Choosing the books:This is often the most challenging decision. Most clubs either let members take turns selecting books every month or create a list of suggested titles and decide together which one to read.
3. Protect the Purpose
BookBrowse survey results reveal a correlation between length of discussions and members’ happiness. “The vast majority of book-clubbers share a common interest in focused, stimulating, and respectful discussion,” says Morgan-Witts. “They love learning from the books and each other and tell us that it is through the book discussions that they get to know people at a depth that can be difficult to achieve in everyday life.”
As a result, book clubs can provide fertile ground for bibliophiles to create and strengthen social connections — and this may be especially true for introverted literature enthusiasts. “Introverts prefer to connect through shared ideas rather than through shared social information,” says Laurie Helgoe, PhD, author of Introvert Power. “A forum that raises interesting questions and reminds us of why we love literature will be a source of meaningful connection for an introvert.”
4. Debate Respectfully
As with all worthwhile social relationships, successful book clubs are built on active listening, respect, and compromise — especially when disagreements inevitably arise.
“Talking about books with others can be deeply rewarding by creating and reinforcing social bonds in ways that still allow for individuality and differences,” says Andrew Elfenbein, PhD, author of The Gist of Reading.
And though competing thoughts and opinions may sometimes clash, book lovers may be better equipped than most to resolve them. Just as reading fiction allows us to step into another person’s story and see beyond our own point of view, respectfully discussing these stories can expand our perspectives even further.
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