“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.
- 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 fun 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 Luminaries 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 next month.
- Beware of books that one of your members describes as “uplifting” or “feel-good”. There won’t be much to talk about.
- 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.
- Leave some flexibility in your schedule; don’t choose books for the whole year.
- 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 2013 or The Best American Essays 2013.
- 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.
I always look to Publishers Weekly for book recommendations; if a book gets a starred review in PW, I pay attention. Carla Buckley’s The Deepest Secret got a starred review, which doesn’t surprise me; the reviewer called it “superb”, and I agree! I read the book last fall, because I was going to meet Carla at a dinner hosted by Random House to introduce authors and editors to Chicago-area booksellers. The Deepest Secret is the story of Eve Lattimore, a parent who makes a terrible error in judgment — and then compounds that mistake by keeping it secret, in an effort to protect her chronically ill son. Much more than a page-turner, The Deepest Secret is a morally complex exploration of parental love. It’s a rare and wonderful treat to read a suspenseful novel that is also character-driven. Book clubs will argue about the choices that Eve, her family, and friends make; there are no easy answers.
I started reading the book the day before I was due to meet Carla. I arrived at the dinner nearly 30 minutes early (very unusual for me) and sat in my car reading the book until the appointed time. When I saw people starting to enter the restaurant, I stashed the book in my purse and joined them. I introduced myself to the first person I saw — who turned out to be Carla Buckley! I told her that her new book was truly “unputdownable” and that I hated to tear myself away from it; I’m not sure she believed me until I showed her my book, with a page dog-eared about halfway through. Carla (along with another terrific author, Jenny Milchman) will be coming back to the Chicago area on May 8 — please join us (with or without your book club) for a great discussion. No need to choose the books — they are already chosen for you! Jenny is the author of two suspense novels: Cover of Snow, a psychological thriller about a young wife in upstate New York investigating her husband’s mysterious suicide, and Ruin Falls (due in April) about a mother desperately searching for her missing children. (Cover of Snow, Jenny’s debut novel, also received a starred review in Publishers Weekly.)