The Problem with Book Clubs

It was our most lively book club debate. It also ended with the woman bursting into tears and running out of the room. Book club soon disbanded afterwards.

There’s a scene in an episode of The Simpsons where Marge goes to her book club. Everyone takes turns going around the room explaining why they didn’t read the book, and then all characters proceed to drink.

Usually when someone critiques the idea of book clubs, it’s scenes like this that come to mind. My problem–if you could call it that, it’s more of a concern, really—with book clubs comes from readers not caring too little about the prose, but rather, too much.

A couple of years ago, my friend Alice and I started a book club for our office. As we were the founders, we had the privilege—and pretty soon, the pain—of choosing the first two reads.

I chose Then We Came To The End, which I still list as one of my favorite books. I found it hilarious. Every flip of the page meant a new chuckle. Everyone else in book club—only half read it—found it boring. Alice’s choice didn’t fair much better: the Russian classic The Master and the Margarita. One half of the book club found it boring. The other half hadn’t even finished it in time. (In their defense, it is a dense Russian book.)

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Hence the first problem—and, of course, the pleasure—of most book clubs formed amongst friends or coworkers: everyone has different tastes!

Some of us might like a good mystery, while others of us only read biographies. I prefer literary fiction, my best friend heads straight to Sci Fi & Fantasy (of course, you get both with Margaret Atwood, but that’s rare).

Choosing a book club book that will interest everyone is out right impossible. No wonder the ladies of Springfield drink!

Sometimes, of course, it’s these varying literary tastes that can open new doors and interests for us.

I, for example, would never have read Dune if it weren’t for a book club. I’ve been able to share Mary Gaitskill with men who claimed to only read John Grisham. For every book club person avidly against your pick, there’s usually one person who might be swayed.

That leads us to the concern I listed earlier—the over-caring, mixed with over-sharing. In this same book club, a member suggested we read One Day. Alice freaking loathed that book. She couldn’t critique it enough.

If the book had been a person, it’d have been reduced to tears—instead, the recommender was. It ended up that the woman had suggested One Day because she really, really related to its story: and with every complaint Alice lodged against the writing or the story, this woman felt like it was a complaint against herself.

It was our most lively book club debate. It also ended with the woman bursting into tears and running out of the room. Book club soon disbanded afterwards.

I would love to start another book club. But the obstacles seem to be mounting: my friends, as they grow older and get married and have children all while balancing careers, seem to have less and less time. I have less and less time. And, of course, I want to avoid the mistakes I made in my last one.

But how do you introduce members to different stories that we can all find interesting and provocative? And what do you do if someone so dearly loves, and so closely relates to a book others hate?

Dear RIFers, I turn to you for help. How do you conduct your book clubs? What are your secrets and suggestions for success? Don’t turn me into Marge Simpson at a book club, I’m begging you. (Though that blue hair is pretty neat.)

Photo Credit: Prixel Creative/

About Kira Walton

Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.

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