4 Steps To Start A Book Club: Life Kit Here's how to start a book club that actually meets, has a focus, fosters good discussion and steers clear of logistical nightmares.
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How To Start A Book Club That Actually Meets

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How To Start A Book Club That Actually Meets

How To Start A Book Club That Actually Meets

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JULIA FURLAN, HOST:

Hi. This is NPR's LIFE KIT and I'm Julia Furlan. And I've got some real choice words for "World War Z."

I mean, "World War Z," the book about the zombies, killed my book club...

ALISHA RAMOS: (Laughter).

FURLAN: ...My favorite book club that I've ever been in - the only book club I've ever been in.

RAMOS: That's a - that was a movie, too, right...

FURLAN: Yeah...

RAMOS: ...With Tom Cruise? OK.

FURLAN: ...I think so. Yeah...

RAMOS: Yeah.

FURLAN: ...I wouldn't know because I didn't read it...

RAMOS: (Laughter).

FURLAN: ...Because I didn't go to that book club. And then the book club was over. And then it ended.

Turns out the movie version is with Brad Pitt, not Tom Cruise - easy mistake to make. Point is I really did love that book club, but that one book was the clincher.

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FURLAN: So, friends, today we're here to make sure that you don't make the mistakes that I did. We're talking all about book clubs - how to start one that thrives and how to make a book club the kind of thing that everybody wants to go to. And, you know, that can mean reality TV rules - you can bring out your hottest takes and your biggest drama.

RAMOS: Some of the best book club discussions I've been to are when there is a little bit of debate of people who truly enjoyed the book and people who kind of wanted to hate (laughter) on it a little bit.

FURLAN: That's Alisha Ramos who is the founder of an online community focused on self-care called Girls' Night In. One of the things that Girls' Night In does is run a huge, multi-city book club. Alisha's here to help us help you succeed with yours, zombies or not. And our first takeaway is the actual zombie that will never ever not rise from the dead - scheduling.

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FURLAN: You know the deal. It's a simple, innocuous email and it goes out to a group of people and then suddenly it devolves. One person's like, oh, no, I forgot my nephew's birthday party is on that day. And then another person is like, oh, I have to cat-sit that weekend - and then on and on and on until you never see each other again.

So to keep that from happening, which nobody wants, takeaway No. 1 - Alisha's advice is to make scheduling really easy and predictable so that people can rely on a set date each month. So agree to the third Tuesday of every month or the first Monday. Just pick a recurring time and stick to it.

RAMOS: Scheduling - oh, my gosh - it is definitely so key to having a successful book club.

FURLAN: Of course, Girls' Night In has 100,000-plus subscribers, so they've got a little bit of a bigger challenge than you and your besties. One tool that she recommends that I can absolutely endorse is this thing called a Doodle poll. It basically allows an organizer to float a bunch of dates for all of the members of a group to say if they're free or not on the dates that they suggested. Try Doods (ph), my dudes.

RAMOS: And I've even seen some people do this Doodle polling IRL. Send out an email to kind of wrap up that month and immediately organize your scheduling for the following month. You can even honestly ask your friends to pull out your (laughter) phones and...

FURLAN: Yeah.

RAMOS: ...Pick a date, like, on the spot that day, as well as voting on your next book on the spot. And that kind of helps you keep the momentum because I think we've all been in those forever long email threads where everyone's like, oh, this date doesn't work for me. This date doesn't work for me. And it's kind of like playing human Tetris (laughter), in a way, with calendars.

FURLAN: One thing that I think can easily get lost when you're setting up a book club is really, really basic - why?

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FURLAN: Like, why do you want to gather regularly and to what ends? Do you want to braid each other's hair and talk smack about your co-workers and also maybe chat about a book? Or is this book club about exploring the history of democracy across the world, or maybe a little of both? I mean, we contain multitudes. But that one thing, intention, can be a really useful tool to bring meaning and clarity to your book club, which is going to make people want to show up.

And that's takeaway No. 2 - set an intention. You don't have to have some lofty goal, but it can genuinely be helpful to have an organizing principle for your book club that informs all of the other choices that you make. So, for example, you could set an intention around different topics, like oppression in the 20th century or stories about music or books about a particular place or a moment in time. These can be ways of filtering the kinds of conversations that you're having.

Or you could pick a genre, like everybody is going to pick a mystery novel this round or true crime explorations or famous letters. These intentions can bring a lot of meaning to your gatherings. Your intention could also be a practical thing. Like, let's say you just want to expand your friend group.

RAMOS: If your intention is to create a space for people to make new friends or maybe, like, you want to meet new friends, that's a really great intention, too. And that will help shape how you run book club, how you choose who is invited to book club because if your book club is there to - with the intention of making new friends, maybe you can make it a rule to say, hey, every month, let's try to invite a friend who has never been to this book club - and kind of have it be this open space versus having the same friend group over and over again, which can be nice, too. But it just depends on your intention.

FURLAN: Yeah.

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FURLAN: I love the idea of having a book club that's about welcoming new friends, don't you? And this brings us to takeaway No. 3, which is about picking the right book for your book club. Sure, not every book is going to be a big winner for everyone. But if you want to keep that momentum going, everybody in the book club has to have something invested in the books that are getting chosen. And, listener, this is where I want you to imagine I've got my hands on your shoulders and I'm looking you deep in the eyes to say if you want to have a book club, you sure as heck better have a strategy for picking a book. Decisiveness is going to be your friend here, OK?

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FURLAN: And that's our next takeaway - make sure that there's consensus on how to choose the book and what books everybody wants to read. For Alisha and Girls' Night In, that meant not being too practical or self-helpy (ph) with the books that they chose. But my mom's book club was literally all about books that would explore self-improvement through different philosophies and religions, and they loved it. So, you know, whatever works for you.

RAMOS: I think it is important to choose a book that will spark genuine discussion. We've found, generally, that fiction books, of course, work really well for sparking discussion. There's something about that where people can bring their own experiences to the table and they're able to reflect.

And that's when I've seen discussions become really lively where, you know, maybe the book is about friendships. And someone right now in their life has a lot of long-distance friendships and they're able to share from their perspective versus another woman who maybe has, like, too many (laughter) friends right now...

FURLAN: Yeah.

RAMOS: ...That kind of thing.

FURLAN: Yeah.

RAMOS: So choosing the book is really important.

FURLAN: So our final takeaway is one that I love so much. Say your book club chooses a book and you're really not interested in it - like me, for example, with "World War Z" - instead of letting that kill your book club, Alisha has a solution, which is our final takeaway. Each meeting, somebody - maybe the host - should do a little Wikipedia rabbit-holeing (ph), a little bit of research on the book's world to set the scene.

RAMOS: If you're the host of that particular book club, definitely try to spend some time cultivating kind of, like, a discussion guides outline or list. That might feel really dorky, but (laughter) it works really well. And you can choose to either circulate it before you meet with your friends or just kind of use it as a guideline during the event.

FURLAN: So let's take the example of "World War Z." I didn't want to read it, but it's entirely possible that I would have liked it a lot more if I had listened to some interviews with the author, Max Brooks, or understood a little bit about the book's place in the larger apocalyptic book pantheon, you know?

RAMOS: Yeah. I think that's a really good tip, especially if you're not loving or jiving with the book, just to gain a little bit more context from the author herself or himself about where they're coming from.

FURLAN: And it's not just about liking the book more. Giving historical information or telling stories about the author can help your book club take in the book in a more complete way. Each bit of context is a new little way into the book for the members of your book club.

RAMOS: I think it's especially important when you're dealing with books or discussing books that are from authors who may have come from much different walks of life than you. We want to definitely take care and respect those backgrounds and all of that - and take all of that into context. So it is, like, one part educational context and other part inserting your own opinion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FURLAN: OK, friends, let's close this little book club by talking through the things that we learned so you can start your own ASAP. First, make sure scheduling is simple, easy and consistent. And if you want, use a Doodle. Second is set an intention for your book club to bring more meaning to it. Third is make sure that there's consensus on what book you pick and how you pick it. And finally, context, people, bring it to your next book club and see what happens.

And that's it. I hope you all feel really inspired. And if you're looking for something great to read, check out NPR's Book Concierge for hundreds of recommendations from all of the smart staffers and critics here. You can search for all kinds of genres, too. And there's even a whole category of book club picks. Find that at npr.org/bestbooks.

For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. There's so much good stuff there. We have an episode on how to pay off student loans, one on the best bedtime rituals. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And while you're there, subscribe to the newsletter so you don't miss a single episode. And here, as always, is a completely random tip, this time from NPR's Christopher Richardson.

CHRISTOPHER RICHARDSON, BYLINE: Make sure to check and change your batteries on your smoke alarms on Daylight Savings Day, that way you're checking a lifesaving tool twice a year.

FURLAN: If you've got a good tip, email us at lifekit@npr.org. This episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. I'm Julia Furlan. Thank you so much for listening. (Singing) Oh, book club, book club. OK.

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