NBC's Today show, ABC's Good Morning America and Live With Regis and Kelly all started their own high-profile TV book clubs recently after Oprah killed off hers. But meanwhile hundreds of thousands of people quietly continued doing what they had been doing, Oprah or no Oprah: getting together to talk about books.
Reading a good book is fun. But nothing beats reading a good book and then getting into a lively discussion about it.
Rachel Jacobsohn, author of The Reading Book Handbook (Hyperion, 1998), estimates that three-quarters of a million Americans belong to book clubs. No one knows for sure, of course, because most of these clubs are small, informal groups of friends, neighbors or co-workers. They get together for social reasons, or because they're too busy to read on their own.
"It occurred to me I had some interesting neighbors, and it would be a great way to connect us all," says Lorraine Ellerson who started the Horn Point Book Club in Annapolis three years ago. "And I like the discipline of having 30 days to finish a book."
Ellerson did a little research on how to start a group, then called neighbors and knocked on doors. She ended up with 17 women ranging in age from 32 to 84 years old who wanted to be involved. They meet from September to June on the second Tuesday of every month.
It's as easy as that to start your own. Book clubs have become so popular there's an endless amount of information on everything from recruiting members to logistics to picking the right book.
Here are 10 suggestions to get you going:
1. Do some reading on the subject or Web surfing first. (See box for resources.)
2. Start small. Call or e-mail a few people and see if they might be interested. Enlist their help in finding more members. Towson resident Karen Ravens' co-ed discussion group started with two couples. In five years it's grown to five. The group meets five times a year, alternating houses.
"There's no agenda," she says. "It's really loosey goosey."
3. The first meeting can set the ground rules. How social do you want the group to be or how serious? Some groups have pot-luck dinners, others serve snacks or dessert. Usually some sort of food is involved. If you start with a social period, decide in advance on a set time to start the discussion or you'll never get around to it.
Regina Pizzonia, who lives in D.C. but works in Baltimore, has belonged to three different reading groups. The most successful, she says, was one that assigned a person to summarize the book before starting the discussion. Some groups require each participant to bring along three written questions about the book. Others just like to jump in.
4. Agree in advance that everyone will read the book before the meeting. Of course, some people won't finish the selection, but at least they'll feel appropriately guilty about it.
5. There are almost as many ways to pick a book as there are reading groups, but most involve having members vote on the selection. The Horn Point Book Club has a different hostess "team" each month, three people who provide refreshments and make two suggestions for the next month's book. The members choose between them.
Club founder Ellerson picked the first selection herself, The Old Neighborhood by Ray Suarez. "It was the perfect book to kick off with because our club's success is based on where we live."
Members of smaller clubs often just throw out suggestions of what they want to read, and the others vote. Some groups insist that at least one person have read the book first.
6. Most groups don't limit themselves in the kind of books they read, although it's probably best to choose ones that have some merit as well as being entertaining. (Prize winners are as good a place to start as any.) Some groups alternate between fiction and nonfiction.
"Start with lighter fiction," says Gary Felser, whose reading group is connected to his Bolton Hill synagogue. "We picked A History of God by Karen Armstrong, and it was like torture. Even the person who suggested it didn't finish it." No one dropped out of his group, though. "We figured it couldn't get any worse."
7. The further you plan ahead the better if your group members are busy -- and who isn't? Advance notice allows Regina Pizzonia to order her books on tape so she can listen to them. Some members like to have a couple of selections to read when they go on vacation and have more time.
8. Make rules, but be flexible. If a book is really long, the group might want to read it over two months. Around the holidays selections should be shorter and lighter. Once a year the North Point Book Club does a book and a movie together. (Last year it was Sense and Sensibility.)
9. Have one person who's willing to send out reminders about meetings, book selections and host or hostess duties.
10. Create an atmosphere in which everyone feels comfortable about speaking. This involves agreeing in advance that everyone will try to be a good listener, that there will be no interrupting, that participants will be courteous even when they don't agree and that only one person will speak at a time.
"When people start a reading group all the anxieties come into play," says reading-group expert Rachel Jacobsohn. "The hardest part is just getting the first words to come out of your mouth. But anything you say will be OK. Just relax."
For more information on getting a group started and choosing books, and for guides to discussion, try these:
www.his.com / ~allegria / compend.html (A compendium of online book clubs)
The Reading Group Book by David Laskin and Holly Hughes (Dutton / Plume, 1995)
What to Read by Mickey Pearlman (HarperCollins, 1999)
The Reading Group Journal: Notes in the Margin by Martha Burns and Alice Dillon (Abbeville Press, 1999)
The Reading Book Handbook by Rachel Jacobsohn (Hyperion, 1998)
Read about reading together