Lead a Book Club

By Liz Kirchhoff

You've elected—or have been elected—to lead a book club. Now what?

Do Your Homework

The best way to quell your nerves before your star turn is to thoroughly familiarize yourself with the material. Read the book and a few reviews as soon as you can. Give yourself as much time as possible to think about questions and themes, as well as which aspects of the book are most likely to interest your members.

Next you need to formulate discussion questions. In the realm of book-club leadership, a little Internet research goes a long way. If you're feeling lazy, you can often simply poach discussion questions already there for the taking: try LitLovers, or search for the book on the publisher's website.

Feeling more ambitious? Look up background information on book's setting and events. Find YouTube videos about the topic at hand, or try a Google image search—a slide show will make you look and feel well prepared.

At the very least, find the author's website or Wikipedia page and read her biography. As a bonus, author websites will often link to interviews, which can be a gold mine for thought-provoking questions.

Once you've got all the information you need, go through it and highlight questions, facts, and observations that seem like they'll keep the discussion moving along. A little work now will help you feel a lot more confident later.

Start Off on the Right Foot

The other members have arrived and everyone has a drink in hand. It's go-time.

One way to start the conversation is to think back to grade school. I always begin meetings of my own book club, which has a revolving membership, by having each person introduce herself and talk about the last book she's read. Some members get really into it and give you a full book report, while others just mention a title. No matter how detailed the response, structured introductions can be a really great icebreaker—after all, most people who've taken the trouble of joining a book club love to talk about books.

Another easy way to start the conversation is with the book at hand. Explain why you chose the title. Did you connect with it emotionally? Were you taken with the story or fascinated by what you learned? Even if you have oodles to say, it's best to keep it short, then open up the floor.

Or you can launch straight into questions. Some leaders like to ask everyone flat-out whether they liked the book. Some leaders ask at the start of the meeting if everyone enjoyed the book, then wrap up by taking a poll on whether anyone has changed her mind. In my club, I usually begin by asking readers not whether they liked the book, but what they thought of it. If you prefer to avoid starting the discussion with judgments, simply ask for general impressions.

Keep It Going

As a book-club leader, it's your job to direct the meeting in a productive way. To do so, you'll need to pay attention to the pace and focus of the conversation. If you notice that it seems stilted or has veered off topic, ask a gentle, pointed question or two to shut down the side chatter that crops up whenever a conversation goes off the rails. Make sure to have the questions you prepared printed out in front of you. As the discussion moves forward, mark them off your list. This will keep you organized and give you an easy way to jump-start a stalled conversation.

Wrap It Up

It's helpful to have†a few closing questions in your back pocket when you reach the end of your discussion. I use these standbys:

  • Is there anything we haven't discussed yet that you'd like to talk about?
  • Would you recommend this to someone else? Who?

At this point, you can relinquish the reins to the person who chose the book for your next meeting, who can close things out with a short introduction of their selection. Take a sip of wine. Eat a cookie. You've earned it.

Liz Kirchhoff is an adult services librarian at the Barrington Area Library in the Chicago suburbs. She is a longtime book reviewer, has read for the American Library Association's Notable Books Council, and was a member of the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction Selection Committee.

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