Book Clubs

You've found a book club that meets your needs; now, what makes a "great" book club book?

Hey fellow book clubbers,

Belonging to a book club can be a lot of fun when you’ve chosen the right one. The first newsletter in the Book Club series offered several tips on the different book club types and finding one that meets your needs. You tried a few out to determine your preference, and hopefully, you found the right one for you.

Now that you’ve found a book club, if you thought the most difficult part was behind you, think again. I believe the most challenging part is understanding what makes a “great” book club book, as not all books make for great discussions. It isn’t enough to just read a great book; it’s essential to have a robust conversation about the book you just read or why participate in a book club. Some books lend themselves to rich discussions, and others don’t; this newsletter looks at making sure the books chosen lend themselves to the best conversations. If everyone enjoyed the book, had the same opinion, and found nothing negative or controversial about it, the discussion is likely over before it begins, and you are left wondering what happened.

While you don’t necessarily need a great book, you need a book that people want to read that has plenty of nuggets to discuss. A book with controversy, weird people, plots, strange character motivations, or strange endings is usually all it takes to have a book discussion that allows everyone to participate and take away a better understanding of what they just read. I often see another perspective that helps me realize that there is more than one way to look at something.

Mundane things like length, frontlist or backlist, and genre need to set the stage to get the reader to want to read the book, but the best book club discussions happen when the book has one or more of the attributes listed below:

  • Choices - Books where the characters have to make choices open the character’s minds to the reader. Most of the time, the choice is not a popular choice; sometimes, it’s a moral choice, but a choice happens, and then the reader watches the fallout from that choice.

  • Characters you can relate to - Novels with three-dimensional characters, flawed or not, allow the reader to connect with the characters’ motivations while the book plays out. Without this, characters seem lifeless, the reader doesn’t understand why they do what they do, and there is no real connection to the story or the characters.

  • Character-driven versus plot-driven novels - A character-driven book puts people first. A plot-driven novel focuses on the events that propel the story forward. In my experience, a good character-driven novel gives the reader insight into the characters, what motivates them, and the characters will drive the story along with their actions. I’ve participated in some of the best discussions that were character-driven books, and I learned so much from the discussion itself that I hadn’t considered while reading the book.

  • Genres - Books with a predetermined plot or ending may not allow for the best discussion. A romance book, by definition, includes a “happily ever after.” While it may be a fun and interesting book, you know the ending before you get there. Similarly, a mystery starts with an event, and you work your way to the end to find out who did it and why, like a game of Clue. However, if the mystery is a “thriller,” this changes everything. A thriller usually involves psychological motivation, which the author uses to keep the reader interested and guessing, the plot twists surprising and the ending unexpected.

  • Ambiguous endings - As a reader, I want to get to the end of the book and know exactly what happened and why. It frustrates me when I get there, and either the ending is so bizarre that it doesn’t make a lot of sense, or I’m left not knowing for sure what happened. These books make great discussion books as each reader has their ideas as to what happened and why. Each reader’s life experiences contribute to their perceptions and most likely will be different than your own, leading to a great discussion.

  • Controversial topics - Books that focus on moral and ethical issues such as religion, politics (although maybe now is not the right time for this one), abortion, and many other topics, can all lead to great discussions. However, I think these topics are best saved for a book club that has been together for a while. The participants know each other as friends, and each person feels safe putting themselves out there for others to see. Tread carefully when choosing books with controversy, but these lead to the best discussions when you do.

  • Narrative nonfiction books - Books that turn an event from history into a book that reads like a novel are excellent book club books. The historical event can be interesting and important, but if the story isn’t told so that the reader engages and connects with it, it is just a “history” book. And we all know how we felt about reading history books from our school days.

  • NOT someone’s favorite book - I can’t stress this enough. If a book club member wants the group to read a book that is their “favorite” book ever, this is probably not a good book for the group to read, especially if one or more readers don’t think they will like it for whatever reason. If this reader is a valued member of the group, no one will want to state their opinion or criticize the book for fear of hurting the persons’ feelings. The person that chose the book could take the criticism personally, and it goes downhill from there.

Great book discussions happen when the readers talk about what the author didn’t say. Each reader’s life experiences dictate what their takeaway is, which can be different from your own. This opens up the discussion and leads to thoughts and ideas that you may not have considered while reading it. These discussions lead to a better understanding of the characters and their motivations. It also leaves you with a feeling of understanding the book better and understanding the writer and what they were trying to convey.

Whew, that’s a lot of things to consider when choosing a great book, but it really does help to understand what leads to great book discussions. I’ve been at a few book club get-togethers before where the book was excellent, most everyone enjoyed it, but it lacked specifics for discussion. Readers want to discuss what they read, and they want to learn from others what they thought about the book and why. This frequently leads to new perspectives that you didn’t think of while reading the book.

Book clubs can be the best places to discuss books. Not only do they require great books, but a good book club also requires a defined structure and a great leader or facilitator. Coming up in the next newsletter in the Book Club series, I’ll give you some ideas on how to start and structure your own book club, as sometimes that is the only way to find the book club that is the best fit for you. Starting a book club is not always easy, but creating the book club of your dreams can lead to friendships and some of the best bookish conversations ever. Happy Book Clubbing!