How To Choose Great Book Club Books

coverI originally posted my tips for choosing book club books in February –probably not the month when most book clubs are deciding what to read for the upcoming year. I’m reposting in September because so many book clubs meet for an academic year, starting in the fall. I’ve also included a list of some great new books full of material for discussion, with an eye toward books that may have been overlooked.

“What’s our next book?” — the dreaded question facing every book club. Here are some suggestions to help increase your chances of choosing a book that will inspire a fun and enlightening discussion:

  • Decide if you’re a democracy or a dictatorship. Will your group vote on the books, or will each member be given the chance to make an executive decision on your monthly selection?
  • Don’t worry about whether everyone will like the book. Some of the best book club discussions happen when not everyone likes the book. And sometimes a member who came into the meeting with a negative opinion of the book goes home with a new appreciation for it.
  • And don’t worry about liking fictional characters. You’re not befriending them, you’re discussing why they behave as they do.
  • Don’t be afraid of nonfiction. I think nonfiction books often provide the best material for discussion. Just stay away from books that are overtly political.
  • Unless you’re a very literary group, choose books that focus on interesting issues. Your book club meeting most likely isn’t going to resemble a college English seminar. You’ll probably have more cover-2fun talking about the ethical problems presented in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks than the imagery in The Age of Innocence.
  • Pick a book that is the right length for the amount of time your group has to read it. Don’t choose The Goldfinch if your group is meeting in three weeks.
  • Don’t choose The Luminaries (or anything of similar density) if your group is the type that discusses the book for 15 minutes and then moves on to more important things — like where you should meet the next month.
  • Beware of books that one of your members describes as “uplifting” or “feel-good”. There won’t be much to talk about.
  • There will always be people in your book group who label everything you suggest “depressing”. Don’t fret about it. Almost every book that is worthy of discussion will seem depressing to these people.
  • Take advantage of all the resources that are available online and in your community. There are countless websites devoted to book clubs, including lists of suggested books. Your local library and bookstore will be happy to make recommendations for you, and to let you know what other groups are reading.
  • Ask your friends (especially out-of-town friends) what their book clubs have read and how successful their choices were. Post “Any great book club books you can recommend?” as your Facebook status.
  • Consider organizing a book exchange. Have everyone bring a book he or she has recently read and trade books. At the next meeting, briefly review all the books and if one stands out, choose it for an in-depth discussion.
  • TheBoysintheBoatLeave some flexibility in your schedule; don’t choose books for the whole year — or if you do, be prepared to make changes.
  • If your group is having a hard time finishing books — or agreeing on book choices — read a short story or an essay. You could even spend the year reading The Best American Short Stories 2014 or The Best American Essays 2014. Think about choosing books that have won major prizes (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker) or have received good reviews in publications you trust.
  • Think about choosing a book that has a film adaptation; read the book, watch the movie, and compare. This past summer, my group read and watched The Fault in Our Stars and The Hundred-Foot Journey. We are planning on reading Wild this fall in preparation for the movie release.
  • Couples’ book groups can be a lot of fun, but make sure you decide on a book that appeals to both men and women.  Our group had a great discussion of John Boyne’s The Absolutist. (You can’t go wrong with The Boys in the Boat or Unbroken.)

Here are 10 books that I think book groups would enjoy reading and discussing. Some of them have been popular, but others have been overlooked. I’d love to know what your group has been reading!

The Enchanted (Rene Denfeld) — Magical realism on death row . . . a mesmerizing reading experience.

All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr) — The best World War II novel — actually, the best novel — I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s the story of a blind girl in France and a conscripted German soldier, and how their lives intersect.

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Sheri Fink) — The author is a physician and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who’s written a gripping account of the life-and-death decisions medical staff at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans were forced to make during Hurricane Katrina.

The Empathy Exams (Leslie Jamison) — Collection of essays about a wide variety of topics — poverty tourism, phantom diseases, incarceration, street violence, reality TV — but with a common thread: how empathy makes us fully human.

we-are-called-to-rise-9781476738963_lgOrange Is the New Black (Piper Kerman) — I haven’t seen the TV series yet, but I hear it’s very different from the book. Kerman’s memoir of her year in a women’s prison raises many questions about our criminal justice system.

You Should Have Known (Jean Hanff Korelitz) — Grace Sachs is a therapist and the author of a popular book cautioning women to take a good hard look at potential husbands. But it turns out Grace hasn’t taken her own advice, when her own husband disappears.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Anthony Marra) — A powerful novel about the human cost of warfare in the recent wars in Chechnya.

We Are Called to Rise (Laura McBride) — The lives of four very different Las Vegas residents (a young immigrant boy, a social worker, a war veteran turned police officer, and the officer’s mother) in a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful story.

The End of Your Life Book Club (Will Schwalbe) — When Schwalbe’s mother was undergoing chemotherapy, she and her son found that talking about books helped them connect.

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (Wes Moore) — The true story of two boys names Wes Moore who grew up within a few blocks of each other in Baltimore — one became a convicted murderer and one became a Rhodes Scholar.

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5 thoughts on “How To Choose Great Book Club Books

  1. A fabulous post but it made me sad because I’ve not been able to establish or join a book club in almost a decade (moving and now working from home- limits the people meeting opportunities). And I love your point about clubs where you discuss the book for 15 minutes and life for the rest of it- it happens!

  2. Excellent tips. In Our group each of takes a turn at proposing a book so we get some variety. I like the idea of the swap as a way of stimulating ideas, the only one of your recommended reads, End of Your Life Book Club, but didn’t care much for it.

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