Book Groups… The Good & The Bad

Firstly before I go any further what-so-ever I wanted to just say that I don’t claim to be an authority on Book Groups. The posts that I have been doing on them are simply my opinions and experiences of Book Groups from my experiences of a new one, a random one and one I was in just over two years before I quit. The latter lead me to this piece, which I think is my last for now on Book Groups… the good, the bad and the ugly. I actually think my book group is quite aesthetically pleasing and yes that is partly an excuse to pop a picture of The Riverside Readers on my blog again.

Anyway, I am sure you will all have been pointed to a certain article in the New York Times about book groups go sour. It was with much sadness that just over a year ago I decided that it was time for me to leave the Book Group that I had started with all the best intentions. Partly because of the fact it became a huge money sucking monster, partly because someone was taking over (never got to the bottom of if it was intentional or not) and partly because of the books I got sick of reading the latest best seller or Richard and Judy choice.

Some of you may have raised your eyebrows at that last statement as you may know I actually don’t mind the Richard and Judy Book Club, its getting people reading and that’s great. The other reason might be after seeing my list of books for book groups. I don’t think I made myself very clear in that post and actually the list of twelve books wasn’t what would by my choice of  the perfect book group reads but a list of ones that (from my experience so far) have worked really well for discussion.

So why did my previous book group go wrong for me? It started off really well, a few friends/work colleagues would meet once a month in a local boozer for beer and book chatter each choosing one book and that would be the book for the month end of. By the time I left we had to bring a choice of five books and if anyone had read one it was discounted and we would vote on the others. Then the book chatter went to twenty minutes before a gossip, though the venue for dinner (?) had to be from the country the book was set in or the author was from. The final straw came when I got tired of people not finishing the books, saying they wouldn’t read ‘scary’ ‘murder filled’ or ‘too tough’ books or ‘books that are clearly for boys’. So I quit. I did for a while wonder if it was me, but I don’t think I am a hard person to be in a book group with, but I wouldn’t… you would have to ask my fellow book groupers I guess.

I do think that both the book group as a whole and each individual member has to work together to make a book group work it’s not down to just the organizers. Naturally friendships are formed or friends join together and that’s lovely at the end of the day though you all have the same goal and that is to read interesting books and discuss them. As being part of a book group I expect I should…

  • Make sure everyone is involved.
  • Welcome all opinions. 

As a book group individual I should;

  • Back up any opinion with reasons not simply ‘I loved it’ or ‘I hated it’.
  • Embrace any book that I wouldn’t normally read and give it a go minimising any prejudice I may have of it for random reasons.
  • Listen and not talk over people, actively encourage others to talk up.
  • Enjoy myself.

There are probably lots more but those are the initial thoughts that come to mind but no book groups are the same. In the new one I started with Kimbofo the only real rules we have are that the book needs to be easily available, not too expensive and we choose in turn and that persons choice is final. Simple as that and so far I think its working really nicely and hopefully it will stay that way as I love it.

If you have read this far, and I appreciate it if you have as this was a longish post and possibly a bit rambling, I would love to hear all your good and bad tales of book groups. I know you all have some so don’t be shy out with it. In fact to make it even more fun. To sweeten the sharing even more the best book group tale (positive or negative) and how your book groups work by midnight tonight will be sent these wherever you are in the world…


Yes two lovely Chris Cleave books The Other Hand, or Little Bee in the USA, and Incendiary which has been republished. So you now have a good incentive, though I am sure you would hopefully have lots to say without it too. So now it’s all over to all of you book group’s tales and book group workings (I do like the idea of themed book group meetings does anyone do those). Good luck…



Filed under Book Group, Book Thoughts, Give Away

27 responses to “Book Groups… The Good & The Bad

  1. Great post, really Simon! And timely for me, based on my growing irritation with my club. I know you know my issues, but for the rest of you, here are my biggest gripes:

    * Most of the members have all worked together at one point, and are in the same field. So there is alot of gossip about things I have no idea. Their field of work also means that their schedule is highly unpredictable.

    * So far, none of the book choices have had any thought put into them at all. No voting going on here. The chooser seems to be flying by the closest book store an hour before the meeting and grabbing something. This method hasn’t turned up very good books.

    ^ There aren’t very many contrary opinions. Everybody likes everything (although I THINK they just don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings).

    * While many RSVP’d for November’s club, only three showed up. Therefore, no book was chosen for next month, nor a date.

    I’m thinking about starting my own if things don’t turn around in the next couple of months. So I’m taking notes. Great advice Simon!

    • It’s not a guide to book groups just to reiterate that but if you can take something from my own personal experience then that great.

      It’s a shame that the rest of your group seem not to be so keen on the group, maybe its just business and shyness? Take the reigns and organise one you would be fabulous.

  2. novelinsights

    Hey, some really good thoughts there. I think it’s good to be aware and active in being an open minded member, but also to recognise the potential pitfalls. Lack of interest in reading other’s books is the most irritating thing for me. It’s about variety surely or why bother. Or as you’ve said before, why not just go out to the pub and chat if that’s what you want to do.

    That NY Times article made me giggle too, it echoed so many of the points you made about that previous group.

    I joined a book group at work that never really began – perhaps it’s a good thing judging by Sandy’s comments!

    • Open minded is a must, I have only once (as you know) been really difficult about a book which was We Need to Talk About Kevin and only twice given up on a book after trying as hard as I could and being as open as possible to them. Sometimes you can try and try but it doesnt work for you and if you have good reasons it can make for interesting discussion.

  3. We have just started a book group at the V&A and we will have our first ‘proper’ meeting at which we discuss a book we have all chosen next week. It’s been great so far as it’s brought together so many of us who work under the same roof but who would otherwise never meet. With nearly 800+ staff scattered across a massive site, most of our contact with each other tends to be via phone or email, if at all, and I know I am not the only one who is completely ignorant of what a lot of specific departments do. So it’s been wonderful to finally meet people face to face, find out about other sections of the Museum that my work doesn’t overlap with, and also be introduced to authors and books I had never heard of before. I’ve also got to know some people a lot better and made some good friendships! Next week we are reading ‘Being Dead’ by Jim Crace, and I had never heard of that before so I’m excited to read it as it looks like something I would never usually pick up. The following month we are reading They Knew Mr Knight and I am so excited to find out how others react to Dorothy Whipple – I coordinated a bulk order and we have nearly 20 people reading it so it’s going to be a great opportunity to spread the Whipple, and Persephone, love to a new audience!

    For me a good Book Group brings random, diverse people together and gives the opportunity to take people right out of their reading comfort zones. Book Groups that read the latest blockbuster are not for me, and neither are Book Groups that bring together people I would normally hang out with anyway. I go to Groups to be introduced to new and interesting and diverse people and to take away new ideas and inspiration. So far the V&A Book Group is doing that for me!

    Oh, and I don’t mind a bit of general chat – it’s nice to get to know people better – but when it digresses too far from the book I get annoyed!

    • Dorothy Whipple – wow! *wants to come along too*

    • Wow Rachel that sounds like a wonderful book group and a great way for colleagues in such a big work environment to meet each other. You should also see if it falls under ‘company culture’ and then work might be able to help you with it in various ways. Apparently some companies embrace it as happy staff are hard working staff and all that. The reading list sounds wonderful. I agree with Verity sounds a hoot!

  4. So, my book group drama…

    I started a book group with some friends (and almost family); it went well, we chose some great books, had some fabulous conversations (admittedly not always about the book), ate some great food. About a year later I invited a good friend from Uni along, which at first was fine but then our friendship became strained, to say the least (non book group related at first). Between us we invited a few other friends, some mutual and some not; this alienated the original members (excluding me) as it began to take on an academic tone instead of an informal and fun chat about books.

    I tried to bring us all back together -meanwhile friendship with “good friend” was going completely belly-up- by trying to organise meetings and administer fair rules in an increasingly acrimonious environment (between ex-friend and I). Anyway, we were no longer friends by that time and it wasn’t much fun attending the same book group together and during the last meeting I attended, it was very tense and I didn’t feel very welcome (by this time, I was the only original member attending – everyone else was too intimidated/p’d off to go back). Also at this meeting, ex-friend announced that the next meeting would be at her friend’s house (we took turns hosting) and they had even decided on the book without consulting anyone (we voted on choices)! Despite this I tried to bring it all together again and emailed everyone including ex-friend to suggest ways that future meetings and choices of books could be fairer. Ex-friend said that she had a silk bag (to this day I suspect it was a sex-toy bag) and we would use it to keep paper choices in and she would bring it along to every meeting; she also said that her boyfriend would set-up a website for us and blah blah blah yawn. Oh, she also implied that I shouldn’t be organising any more (or trying to create harmony) and gave out everyone’s contact details excluding mine (bear in mind that some of these original and new members didn’t even know one another). I lost my temper (there was a lot of baggage between us and I resented her taking over and pushing me out) and said some harsh words in an email that was sent to entire group; I later emailed everyone -excluding ex friend- apologising for involving them in our “feud”. Next day I was in Uni with friends studying and ex-friend turned up and completely freaked out that I hadn’t copied her into apology email (well, why would I?) and screamed at me in the library. We eventually went out to lift area as she wouldn’t calm down and when I mentioned that a couple of people weren’t happy that she had shared their contact details without asking first she screamed abuse at me and that she wished I would die and then stormed off. Anyway, the next meeting was a few days later and I was obviously not comfortable attending so I gracefully bowed out. Is that enough of a soap opera story for you?! 3.5 years later and I am still bitter ;).

    • Wowsers that is quite some conflict going on there, I am amazed you didnt have a breakdown frankly Claire. It sounds horrific.

      It did make me laugh though twice, once at the bitter comment and the other at the sex toy bag… the mind boggles.

      It’s sad when book groups go that way and you loose a friend or see them in a different light. I have to say I havent seen two off the book group members since I left and we were really good pals. What can you do though?

  5. The only kind of book club I could ever belong to (and do) is one where no one is telling me what to read. I only wanted to read books suggested by people whose taste in reading I trust. I refuse to read anything because I have to. This doesn’t mean I don’t ever challenge myself to new things. It just means I hate feeling obligated to read anything.

    So the book club I go to is a free for all. Everyone brings what they have read recently, says a bit about each book, others chime in if they have read it, questions are asked, books swapped, etc. No pressure about anything. After a while you learn whose taste in the group you trust and whose books to avoid. Plus lots of food and gossip.

    • I have heard of another book group (which Dovegreyreader attends) where they dont have a specific book but instead all read a book based ona theme and this idea fascinates me. Does it work well the one you are in, how do you keep everyone involved am fascinated.

  6. lizzysiddal

    My group’s library-based and so there is no need to fork out for books. The downside is that our choices are often restricted to what the library has in stock. Up to now we have done OK but I do worry that impending budget cuts will curtail our selections somewhat.

    Fortunately North Lanarkshire Council is a large council with 20+ library branches and it seems that the reader development program (under which the book groups are run) is one close to its heart. So the book groups have just been allocated a small sum to buy some new books. The groups (there are about 12 now) were asked to nominate books for reading. The librarians will decide what eventually gets bought. As leader of my group, I know what we asked for and I’m hopeful that most of the titles will be coming our way.

    I think the fact that it’s a library group which meets in the library reduces the risk of the infighting that can go on. Our meetings last 90 minutes and we do talk about the book. We’ve been meeting for 5 years now and our turnover in members is very low. One member left to move to California (really – some people!) and another left because she didn’t want to read fiction (so why join a fiction book club then?). Others have left due to ill-health but they do still read the books! It’s a great group and I hope it stays that way.

    (P.S Simon – don’t enter me in the giveaway – I’ve still to read the last one I received from you.)

    • I did once try and go to a library meeting locally to me and sadly the council and the libray didnt seem as organised or as caring as the one that you are in. I turned up and it was chaos… so I snuck back out again. That was one of the reasons for starting the London one.

      It sounds like you have a really lovely group, am hoping all the members in mine are in for the long haul!

  7. No need to enter me in the giveaway drawing, Simon, but what an interesting post and comments! The interesting thing to me is that as entirely reasonable and practical as your suggestions appear to be, it’s clear from your experiences and those of some of the others that there are many potential pitfalls to watch out for. I would have wanted to smack the book group member who wouldn’t read “books that are clearly for boys,” but on the other hand maybe that’s just an overly “male” reaction to gender bias on my part! Anyway, hope you have a good day over there!

    • I wouldnt go as far as to give them a smack hahaha. It drove me sufficiently nutts that this one person was the reason I left the group. It was clearly just a personality clash as the book group is still going, if on slightly wobbly last legs by all reports… eeek!

  8. I’ve been in four book groups, all very different in character, and I’ve loved them all! Three of them didn’t/don’t mind if you turn up without having read the book – that would drive some people crazy, but I liked the relaxed atmosphere. So long as non-finishers didn’t mind the end being spoiled.

    I really recommend Jenny Hartley’s non-fic book Reading Groups (which has probably been mentioned already). She sent out a survey to loads of book groups, and it’s the result of those – fascinating reading.

    • No one has recommended that read Simon so thank you for the heads up on that one will keep my eyes peeled for it. I can imagine thats a very interesting read.

      I freely admit people coming who hadnt read a page of the book would irritate me, what would be the point of being there what could they add. Each to their own though. How many groups are you in at the moment.

      • lizzysiddal

        We’re quite relaxed about people not having read the book … or even abandoning it. In a well-attended group of 15, we can afford to be. I can imagine it’s not that easy in a smaller group

        Those who abandon books can have as much input to a discussion as those who complete them ….

      • I get abandoning a book and still wanting to hear other peoples thoughts on it and wanting to discuss why you abandoned it. I am not so sure that I understand why you would want to go to a book group if you hadn’t read the bookat all, even a single page? The plot might get spoilt or you might have nothing to say, I find it interesting though all the same.

  9. Bellezza

    I’m currently in two book clubs. The first is my mother’s. The women, now in their seventies, are extremely intellectual and interesting. However, what has always been a thought provoking discussion now wanders off in tangents and forgetfulness and comments which don’t pertain to the topic. Aging, I guess. The other club is from work, and as you said about yours, I’m ready to quit. We also meet for dinner, and apparently, gossip. Too many times people haven’t read the book, or don’t discuss it thoroughly, and I’d just as soon call it a “dinner club” than a “book club.”

    The Great Books foundation, from the University of Chicago, has a fascinating way to lead books with children…ask ONE question, and the participants must back up their opinion with facts from the book. For example, “Was Jack (from Jack in The Beanstalk) smart or lucky?” Then, the kids had to find sentences which verified their answer. It’s a fascinating way to hold a book club as it really gets to the meat of thing.

    Very interesting post, here. I probably have waxed on long enough. 😉

    • I am really looking forward to going to one of my Grans book groups in the spring as a guest and that will all be mainly women (and two men I think) who are in their late sixties and seventies and think its going to be very very insightful.

      Maybe with work ones that just happens, you all start talking about the person at work everyone is a bit unsure about and then you just can’t stop. I also noticed that as people left the company they stayed at book group but wanted to know what the gossip back at work was and its really distracting. Have a natter and a chat by all means, but talk about the book for the main not who snogged who in the stationery cupboard or at the Christmas Party.

  10. The book group I go to used to test new members by making them choose the next book! I remember choosing Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob which actually went down well, but others have chosen a book and not returned!

    Nowadays we welcome any like-minded soul who gets introduced by another member and we tend to choose books by a few titles being thrown into the ring and a consensus being reached on the final choice which generally works well. We deliberately try to pick different types from month to month, and are not afraid to include occasional non-fiction titles or plays even.

    After our success last year with Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf translation, we were going to try a poetry night this Feb. Everyone was going to bring a poem they liked and read it out. Many were very relieved when it got snowed off!

    • Oh thats an interesting way of getting new people in but my concern would be people would come and choose a book and then never turn up to the next one as you pointed out. It’s happened in a book group i know of. We have a rota now.

      Wow poetry that would be interesting but iof you read a big selection how would you choose which poems to discuss?

  11. Hi, Simon! So sad to read as to what your book club has become, and I can clearly understand why you’ve left it. There’s no point in staying if attending the book discussion has become a chore.

    I just recently joined a book club. Actually, it started out as an online book club and I was a lurker for the longest time. Then I started joining the monthly meetups and I found them quite fun.

    So far, everything’s running smoothly. We’re still planning on which books to tackle for next year. If we don’t select a specific book, we usually find a theme such as banned books, books on women’s issues, etc.

    • Hi Peter, its not the book group that i am in now, but the one that I was in before and hence why I wanted to found another one with Kimbofo and so far it all seems to be going really well and I am really enjoying it!

  12. I hear you about book clubs. Ours started in Aug 2001 with three of us. It was fun to enjoy books together. We would meet in restaurants and over dinner discuss a book.

    As time went on, we grew to an average of 7 people and that worked great too… we were introduced to more authors and our reading tastes expanded.

    About 5 years in we averaged 12 people…. still quite doable. We added fun things to our agenda – a free read month with a potluck picnic, a classic read every October, and we chose a Queen every July who broke all ties in reading choices or places to meet. We were having a lot of fun and people started to hear about our great group.

    Now we average almost 20 people per meeting. Many restaurants cant take us because we are too large a group. Its hard to hear everyone in a group of 20 and it is hard to get everyone on topic in such a large group.

    Every time I plan to put a cap on the group – someone new, eager to be a part of our group is there and I cant make them feel like they were the straw that broke the camels back so I wait….

    December is our 100th meeting (that I am excited about!). I am hopeful that there will be no newcomers at this meeting and as I am the current Queen I am going to put a cap on the group to start off 2010.

    Oh…. Off with my head! LOL

    • Hahahaha your message really made me laugh and having a Queen every so often sounds a hoot. I hadnt thought about capping members, that is something we might want to consider if we get too many but at the moment we average about 10 people which seems a nice amount though I think we have two new starters next month.

      One thing I havent discussed is how to get rid of ‘difficult’ members, not something I hope I have to do but its something that must have happened to people in the past????!!!!

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