I have a confession: I’ve never been in a book club.
I’ve read hundreds of books, thanks to undergraduate and graduate degrees in English, a brief but successful career as an English professor, and a lifelong interest in the written word. I’ve sat in, and led, courses devoted to the discussion of books, but I’ve never been in a book club.
My professional and social orbits haven’t even included talk about book clubs, until recently. I’d briefly considered searching one out as a way to meet new people when we moved to Santa Fe nearly two decades ago, but I never got serious about the effort, for two reasons. The first was the double-edged fear that, as a former English professor, I’d be expected to lead the group and provide insightful comments or that everyone would be struck dumb in fear of what a former professor might say. (No worries there; I’ve forgotten almost everything I took pains to learn about literary theory.) The other reason was best articulated by Groucho Marx: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”
But such decisions are never forever. I now can imagine belonging to a book club, many years from now, when I’m retired and hanging out with other retirees. None of us has a professional persona to preserve. We’ve lived long enough to call BS on highly touted titles we find dull—or poorly edited. We take turns revising the fates of favorite characters. A couple of us share the backstory on the latest fiction we’re writing. There might be a bottle of wine or a cocktail shaker in the scene.
For now, though, I’m being selfish. I’m reading what I want when I want. I feel no guilt when I don’t finish a book. I feel no guilt for not reading “enough.”
Why Book Clubs?
I became interested in book clubs from a marketing angle when I wrote my first novel, Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles. But beyond that, I love that book clubs are thriving. I love that readers of all ages and backgrounds are gathering in person or virtually to discuss books and share their experiences. I love the potential book clubs hold for community-building.
From their name, you’d assume book clubs are about reading and discussing books. From movies, you’d gather that they’re about getting together with friends of a shared demographic over wine. From the popularity of Oprah’s and Reese’s book clubs, you’d suspect they’re about staying current with influencers. Turns out, book clubs are all that and more.
Large publishers host their own book clubs and offer deals to big-name clubs as a savvy marketing strategy. (That’s one reason it may seem that all the well-known book clubs are reading many of the same books in any given year.) But you can also find book clubs for niche demographics and for every genre under the sun. Some clubs don’t even require you to read the book. During the COVID era, it’s no surprise that virtual book clubs have grown in popularity.
Book clubs aren’t just for those with the disposable income to buy a dozen books a year. Libraries have made digital sign-outs possible. For example, Hoopla, an ebook service for libraries, has a Book Club Hub that’s accessible to anyone with a library card at a library that subscribes to Hoopla for ebook check-outs. (Optics will be available through Hoopla, though my non-Amazon ebook distributor says the service has long processing times.)
Data on the number of book clubs and members is hard to verify, especially as so many are local and without a digital presence. Whatever the reason for joining a book club, participation among “regular readers” in the U.S. between 2004 and 2015 rose from 33% to 57%, according to a white paper produced for librarians. The three-page report includes tips for creating successful book clubs. A chart showing the various ways book club members find out about books puts “Personal recommendations” in the top spot, so thanks in advance for any good words you share about Optics with fellow readers!
Book Club Questions
Whether a book is selected by a nationally known club helmed by a famous one-namer or by a self-governed local group, having a novel selected by a book club increases book sales and can expand the network of potential readers. That’s great, but getting book clubs to choose indie-published Optics is much harder, especially as large traditional publishers have substantially larger marketing and promotion budgets.
Even with those advantages, best-sellers and highly acclaimed titles can fall flat, as a friend who’s been in multiple book clubs recently explained. She described one meeting at which most participants offered only one-word answers to what she considered lame discussion questions.
I want to make it easy for book clubs to select Optics, so I wrote a set of Book Club Discussion Questions. Take a peek and download them if you plan to read Optics with a book club or a friend. I’ve written no “reading quiz” questions—the sort that require you to recall some obscure detail. Nor will you find any that ask you to comment on the “significance” of this scene or that character name, as one might expect from a college English course. They’re simply prompts to help you articulate why you did, or didn’t, like particular aspects of the book.
If you use these questions in a book club—this year or any time in the future—send me a message via this website to let me know how they worked (and what you drank).
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