The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read. ““ Abraham Lincoln
Last week, I talked about the initial steps of setting up a book club, including deciding what kind of group you want, picking your venue, and finding members. This week it’s all about the books.
Part 2 ““ Picking the Books
1. Your theme
As important as it is to be firm on what kind of club you want, it’s just as important to be clear on what kinds of books your group will want to read. It’s often easiest to start with what they absolutely don’t want on their slate. When I started with my current club, they already had one unmovable rule in place: they didn’t want to read any Oprah titles. This included not only any novels the Oprah Book Club had actually selected (and rebranded), but any Oprah-like books. At the time that category generally meant “books where the kids die.”
Over the years, that no-fly list has expanded to include “no more books about the Holocaust” (after having read a large number of them) and for a year long stretch, “no more science-fiction” after a heavy six month sci-fi rotation. My personal no was “Jane Eyre,” as I’ve never gotten over the trauma of reading it in middle school, while another member didn’t want to read any books they “may have been assigned in high school.” These boundaries are very helpful.
On the “to read” side, there are several organization options:
Genre club (romance, science fiction, historical, etc.)
Strict fiction club (open genre, no non-fiction)
Classics club (You know that book you always meant to get around to reading?)
Theme club (Instead of everyone reading the same book every month, the month has a theme and everyone chooses their own title to read and share. Themes could include biography, war novels, travelogues, humor, hard-boiled crime fiction, etc.)
Pot Luck (Almost anything goes)
If you’re lucky enough to have a group of people who can afford to buy a new novel or a new download every month, skip this requirement. Also, please invite me to your parties.
For everyone else, how your club is going to get their novels is going to be an issue. An issue that will ultimately affect which books you pick. If most of your group has migrated over to e-readers, you might be able to limit your choices to books that are available online for free — Project Gutenberg (38,000 titles) and ManyBooks.net (29,000 titles) are great places to start. The majority of these titles are older titles out of copyright, but, hey, you can keep a club rolling on the collected words of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, HP Lovecraft, Sir Author Conan Doyle, and Edgar Allen Poe for quite some time. Cory Doctorow, along with some other current authors, have made their titles available for free online and downloadable through Creative Commons licenses–I recommend his novel Little Brother quite highly.
If you’re still on the paper trail, I would highly suggest keeping your title list to books that are plentiful and easily available through the local public library. This will limit your possibilities somewhat, especially for larger groups, but it’s absolutely doable if you commit yourself to a bit of extra legwork. Note: Many libraries now lend e-books, however they have a limit on how many “copies” of each title can be leant out at any time. Don’t count on everyone being able to borrow the same ebook from the library at the same time.
3. The Titles
Once all the minutia is out of the way, picking the titles is the fun part. Initially, I warn you, people might be afraid to suggest titles, because no one wants to be responsible for the book that everyone hates. I have been that person on many occasions. Once, someone almost chucked a novel at me, that’s how much they hated it. (The Monsters of Templeton, which, for the record, I liked a lot and cried through the last chapter of.)
But make everyone pick a book. It could be a book they’ve been wanting to read, a book they’ve been meaning to read, or one they really want to share with other people. It’ll help in making them feel connected to the club and people who feel connected are likely to keep coming back. No suggestions are bad suggestions. If you’re the organizer, put together a list of titles in advance of potential reads–you can get great suggestions from Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThing, ReadingGroupChoices, LitLovers, and, yes, from Oprah. I get a lot of my recommendations from the book reviews on NPR.
Coming with a list of titles will help spark discussion, remind people of books they’ve read or want to read, and move the process along. You get bonus points if you’ve already combed through your suggestions and highlighted the ones you can get for free.
The following titles have been among the favorites of my personal group, either because they were enjoyable reads or they prompted good discussion. You might find these helpful in pulling together your own reading list.
The Sparrow by Mary Dora Russell
Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Eagan
Crytonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Superfreakenomics by Steven Levitt
Animals in Translation by Temple Gradin
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer
Bel Canto by Anne Prachett
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Super Bonus: There was some interest expressed last week in the comments for starting up the Persephone Book Club again. Please let me know if you’d like to participate so we can gauge interest. Thanks!