New Ideas for Book Clubs

The traditional American book club, with its focus on novels, is alive and well across the land. But in changing times, new groups are borrowing the book club idea and adapting it to their own needs.

Many factors have contributed to the rise of new model book clubs, but among them, two stand out: The movement of Baby Boomers into retirement, and the increasing desire of many Americans to understand the complex issues confronting their country – and the world – in the new millennium.

As Boomers retire in large numbers, these youthful seniors find themselves with time on their hands, plenty of energy, and – in economically uncertain times – a sense of caution about spending too much on travel and adventure. Add to this the curiosity of a well-educated generation which has devoted several decades to focusing on reading for career advancement, and there is a natural explosion of interest in broader topics such as history, politics, economics, international affairs, education and the environment.

To answer this demand, two new types of book club are emerging.

The general interest non-fiction book club focuses broadly on a wide range of topics.  Most successful non-fiction book clubs include members with a reasonably diverse range of views together with a strong commitment to the open exchange of ideas. In any case, to succeed, a non-fiction book club must resolve such thorny issues as setting informal rules for maintaining civility when debate becomes intense and developing a mutually satisfactory procedure for selecting books.

Structurally, some non-fiction book clubs will develop strong leaders, while others will function more or less democratically. If such a club can maintain itself for a year, with decent attendance, it has a good chance of becoming a long-running success. 

A variation on this theme, the focused non-fiction book club, brings together readers with a particular interest. Unlike the general interest book club, a focused book club will very likely include members more attuned to activism.  This will tend, over time, toward the exclusion of minority voices and points-of-view.

Such a development is not, in and of itself, dangerous to the success of the club. The real danger lies in group-think. As long club members remain open to new information and allow their ideas to evolve in response to what they are learning, all will likely be well. However, in today’s polarized political environment, such a club runs the risk of degenerating into a group of like-minded people agreeing with each other and mocking those (usually absent) who do not share their views.  In such a case, the purpose of continuing to read and learn will be defeated. The club may persist, but not as a genuine book club.  Strong leadership is essential in avoiding such an outcome for a focused, non-fiction book club.

In addition to their interest in serious topics, many Boomers and older seniors find themselves eager to return to the literary passions of their youth – or to subjects they overlooked in their college days. For some such readers, a traditional book club, with its literary emphasis, will answer. But for others – especially those who want to tackle some of literature’s more daunting challenges – a different model is needed.

An increasing number of adult readers have found that their personal “bucket lists” include one or more great works of literature which seem overwhelming in their length or density. Tackling Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” or Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” is an enormous undertaking at any age. For some readers, the answer lies organizing a “bucket list book club”. 

Unlike a traditional book club, a bucket list book club meets frequently – usually once a week – but only for fifteen minutes or so.  The key to starting a bucket list book club is to remember that it is essentially a support group – modeled on weight loss and twelve-step programs where each member sets individual goals. Because each member may be reading a different book – and setting different personal weekly goals – there is limited ground for discussion. Instead, members applaud each other when they reach their goals, and encourage those who fall short.  A bucket list book club is a place for mutual support and easy camaraderie among friends who love books.

A modified form of bucket list book club can be created where several readers share a desire to tackle the same book, or the collected works of the same author. Such a group might be started by one or two readers determined to get through Gibbon, or Chuchill’s “The Second World War”; to undertake the complete works of Dickens, Tolstoy, Trollope or Twain; or to find out why the grandkids are so fascinated by Harry Potter.

Like a bucket list book club, a marathon book club will probably meet at least weekly. However, with its emphasis on a common goal, a marathon book club will tend to tackle this challenge like a team of climbers assaulting Mount Everest – starting together and, as much as possible, sticking together to the end.

Unlike a bucket list club, marathon readers will probably want to meet for a full hour. With every member committed to read the same chapters or pages each week, there will be ample room for discussion.

Also unlike a bucket list book club, a marathon book club will tend to be less democratic. In order to keep a group of readers together – gathering up stragglers and restraining those who want to rush ahead – strong group discipline will be necessary.  In a successful marathon book club, one or two leaders will usually emerge by general consent. On their shoulders, the success of the venture will rest.

These four new models are among the many ways Baby Boomers and other serious readers are meeting their need for lifelong learning.  More such experiments are certain to take place, using the familiar book club model as a starting point, and adapting it to the needs of new generations and changing times.