Most book clubs are doing it wrong

by James Somers, July 15, 2017

The standard way to run a book club is to have everybody finish the book before meeting to talk about it. You have one meeting per book. The discussion goes on for one or two hours before it runs out of gas, and then the group picks the next book, and you agree to meet in another month or six weeks.

You would never run a class this way, because it practically minimizes the value that each participant gets from being in the group. The problem is that there’s no time to cash in on anyone else’s insights. If someone says something in the meeting that reframes how you think about the book — they suggest that Holden is lying, or that Kinbote wrote Canto IV; they tell you to read Portrait first, so you can understand Stephen’s double bind; they claim that Offred’s tale is a series of transcripts, not journal entries — well, now it’s too late, because you’ve finished reading the book and you’re probably never going back to it.

What makes a class useful is precisely that it lets you compare notes with your classmates along the way, to float your working theories about a book and see how they sound to others. It’s not a retrospective, or not merely one — you’re equipping yourself for the rest of the reading.

This is true not just of frameworks or theories or whatever but of little nuts-and-bolts stuff, too, like when someone points out a reference that you missed or helps you savor some language that you blew right by the first time. That kind of thing is especially valuable when you’re reading a difficult book.

My book club started four years ago to read Infinite Jest. There were five or six of us; we had all tried, and failed, to read the book on our own. We met every week and read about fifty pages for each meeting — five or six hours’ worth for a book that dense. If you were out of town, you tried to call or Skype in, and you were forgiven for missing a few sessions, so long as you more or less kept up with the reading.

Since then we’ve run just about continuously, every week, week in, week out, for four years. We’ve read other hard books, and easy ones too, and no matter what, we’ve always split the reading into at least more than one meeting, because isn’t that after all how you make use of those other minds? Book club, for us, isn’t about reading the same book; it’s about reading a book together.

We try to keep the reading to about the amount you can do in a few hours on a Sunday afternoon. Weekly book club has become a fixture in our schedules, an institution like family dinner, though it’s not uncommon for someone to skip a whole book, say if they’re traveling a lot or right after they’ve started a new job. The idea is to make book club less an obligation than a sort of pleasant presence in our lives, this thing that’s always there.

Some books don’t really demand so much attention, and our book-talk during those sessions quickly devolves into banter. But most of the time the discussion lasts a full hour before it runs out of steam, naturally, the way almost all meetings seem to.

That’s another reason to break a book into pieces: better to have too little to fit into a session than too much; god forbid you read something complex and demanding — do you really want to spend three hours in the unpacking, or to have the session break down before the unpacking’s done? And what are the odds that you’ll even remember most of the book by the time six weeks pass?

Good books are almost fractally deep: you find whole worlds wherever you look, and no matter how far in you zoom. Breaking a book into multiple meetings makes the most of this fact. It gives you space to dwell — on a page, even on a single word — without feeling like you’re wasting anyone’s time. No: that’s what a book club is for, not to sum up what you’ve read but to live inside it.

I don’t know why more people don’t run book clubs this way. I think part of it is that they’ve never tried; the very concept of a book club seems to imply a one-book-per-meeting structure. Others hear the idea of meeting weekly and think who has the time?

I would say that anyone who loves books has the time. A book club run in the standard way isn’t efficient or practical — it’s just a good opportunity wasted.