Book Clubs: Love ’em or Hate ’em?

Sometimes I finish a book aching to talk about it. You know what I mean: The story has burrowed under your skin, the ideas keep ticking in your head, and you just can’t let it go.

At times like these, rather than latch onto strangers on the street or corner them in elevators, it’s nice to belong to a book club.

One friend of mine had a book club that left me envious. Not only did their reading list include literary masterpieces, but they had a smart approach to every session: The person who had selected the book started the meeting with a brief presentation, including the author’s biography.

Unfortunately, this particular friend lived over 70 miles away, so it was tough for me to try to muscle my way into her group.

My sister belonged to a book club for years that developed a unique method. When too many in their busy circle had trouble finishing a long novel, they decided to stick to short books of not more than 250 pages. They called themselves “The Very Little Book Club,” which always made me smile.

Because of their small numbers, they were able to pull off an unusual method of book selection, too. They took turns, and whoever decided on the title bought a copy for each member of the group. (Some of the selections, as you might imagine, were not exactly top sellers; others were lucky finds on the remainders table at the local bookstore.)

One selection, The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love, by Jill Conner Browne (213 pages), inspired them to add extra flair to that month’s meeting: They prepared Southern dishes from recipes in the book and dressed in Sweet Potato Queen attire, including wigs. Now that’s a book club to love.

Still, discussing a book with a group can get a little dicey. Opinions differ. More than this, one person’s assessment of a book can easily tip from subjective interpretation into the realm of absolute “truth.”

Okay, I confess I’ve been guilty of this once or twice.

Years ago, desperate for literary discourse, I went to a local bookshop to participate in a discussion of Mary Karr’s terrific memoir, The Liars’ Club. (Yes, I called it terrific; you got a problem with that?)

During the course of the evening, I was surprised that some readers were totally invested in the idea of judging the actions of the individuals involved, as if it were the readers’ duty to deliver a verdict on the moral integrity of the author’s family. I felt like I’d stumbled into an episode of “Judge Judy.”

At The Poisoned Pen, a terrific independent bookstore in Arizona.

At The Poisoned Pen, a terrific independent bookstore in Arizona.

Of course, many books include talking points in their final pages. And most authors (myself included) are thrilled to be asked to speak to book clubs, either in person or via Skype. But it’s refreshing to slip out of the role of author and into that of reader.

So, I’m happy to report that I’ve recently joined a book club that meets at a local café. I’ve only gone to a couple of sessions, but the reading list is eclectic and the members are smart. As an unexpected bonus, the group’s organizer writes an insightful summary and emails it to everyone after each meeting.

I’m always intrigued to discover what someone is reading, and I love to hear about different types of book clubs. Some of my friends meet to discuss novels over fancy weekend brunches or cozy wine-and-cheese gatherings. Others devoutly attend meetings at bookstores or libraries, where they discuss only a particular genre, such as mysteries or historical fiction. Other groups surely focus on politics or horror or romance. And for anyone searching for titles, Goodreads provides unlimited options.

So, tell me, bibliophiles, what are you reading? And what do you love (or hate) about book clubs?

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Carla Norton is a novelist, journalist, and true crime writer. Her debut fiction, The Edge of Normal, was a Thriller Award finalist and a Royal Palm Literary Award winner. The sequel, What Doesn’t Kill Her (titled Hunted overseas), was released last summer. Her true crime books include Disturbed Groundabout a notorious female serial killer, and Perfect Victim, which was put on the reading list for the FBI Behavioral Sciences Unit and became a #1 New York Times bestseller. For more, visit CarlaNorton.com and find her on Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter.