How To Start And Run A Book Club

Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

People frequently ask me for advice about how to get a book club off the ground and how to keep it going strong. I love the question, as I firmly believe that the world needs more killer book clubs.

Below you’ll find takeaways from my strange trait of continuously founding book clubs. These hard-won learnings come from six illustrious years of book club leading: 3 book club groups, 160+ combined members, and more than 56 books read together. I hope they can be of use.

Themes attract the right members and help people understand what they’re committing to. Both general themes (e.g. fiction by women) and specific themes (e.g. AI ethics) can do well.

Ideally, book club should be hosted in a home. Real discussions happen at home: we show more vulnerability and have more fun when we’re relaxed and removed from a professional environment.

If you can’t host at home, try to make the gathering as homey as possible with tea and home-baked treats.

Calendars fill up fast and reading takes a while! Get meetings on calendar early and allow plenty of time to prep. Having a regular meeting time and cadence will help with consistent attendance.

It’s natural to want everyone to participate in selecting the reading. That said, voting on books adds considerable friction to scheduling the next gathering. Also, voting usually results in a “lowest common denominator” choice — a book everyone can live with and no one is ecstatic about.

An alternative: Let one inspired person select the reading, then ask them to host and/or facilitate the discussion. You’ll end up with more distinct readings that allow different members of the book club to shine.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Shoot for books under 300 pages. Most people will be speed-reading the book at the last minute regardless.

People tend to arrive at book club brimming with brilliant ideas about what they read, and they want to voice them! Create that opportunity with your first question.

Our book club starts meetings by asking every person to comment on how much of the book they’ve read, and what about the book they’re most excited to discuss. Getting all the brilliant ideas out in the first five minutes helps the discussion start somewhere real, and helps people listen better, no longer bursting to make their special point.

In a perfect world, people read the book. But the world isn’t perfect. If reading is mandatory, attendance suffers. I like to circulate a book review and advise people to reference it if they want to join the discussion but don’t think they can get through the whole book in time.

Book clubs are a high time investment, and assembling a group that hits it off with good chemistry from the beginning is essential for making people want to show up.

If you’re starting your book club from zero, hand-pick a small number of participants and reach out to them personally to gauge their interest and extend an invite. Good people to choose early on include people you know well, people you know will do the reading, people you know have something thoughtful to contribute. Once you’ve had a few successful meetings and you’ve established a good culture, you can open up the group to more people.

People are trying to socialize and buy gifts and book flights and make quarterly goals at work — not a good time for an additional homework assignment. Our book club substitutes our typical meeting with a pot luck and white elephant book swap in December.

If all goes well, you’ll end up building a community of amazing intellectual thought partners. And you’ll want these people’s brains and souls around the table in a number of settings. Here are some cool non-book things my book club has done together:

Read-treat — We hosted a reading retreat at my house. The book club came over, brought yummy snacks, and read together in (mostly) silence. Nice way to see people and do something social while still clocking solid reading hours.

Documentary Night — We watched documentaries and hosted discussions afterwards, just like how we read books and discuss them. Fun Friday night activity, and all you need is a projector and a big wall!

W Tea F — We’ve had success with afternoon teas where we discuss articles that address a more technical, political, or scientific topic than the fiction we typically read. We call this series of gatherings W Tea F :) In the past, we’ve hosted W Tea F is the Blockchain and W Tea F is Cybersecurity, and W Tea F is Carbon Capture.

Friends from book club are my most cherished intellectual thought partners. We share our tastes and opinions, and wrestle with big questions through story. I hope you’re able to achieve the same with your book club!

Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash

If you have questions about the process of starting / running a book club or just want to say hi, you can find me on Twitter.

Tech Fellow @AspenPolicyHub & #MovingForward Executive Director. Ex- @UberEngineering .

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