Skipping the Scary Parts: Secrets to a Successful Library Book Club
by Jessica Hilburn
On the third Tuesday night of every month, there is one sound that will always greet your ears if you walk down the stairs at Benson Memorial Library in Titusville, Pa.—laughter. The nine women assembled there venture in, regardless of their busy schedules, the weather, or other inconvenient life happenings, because they know that they can escape into their shared world of all things bookish.
In October 2018, at the second meeting of this book club, members were discussing spooky books and what kinds of literature had them looking fearfully into the shadows in the middle of the night. One member was a devoted thriller connoisseur. She had read widely in the thriller and horror genres and recommended a book that chilled her to the core. With that kind of praise, I had to read it.
At the next meeting, I reported that I was a little surprised she recommended the book because it included a scene with the death of a family pet. The woman was shocked. She had no idea this happened in the book. And then she dropped the bombshell that has defined our book club to this day: “Well, I skip the scary parts.” The entire club went quiet. “You … what?” was the general reaction. She explained that she skips parts with material she knows will overly upset her and then ventures on with the story. It had never occurred to many of us to just skip the scary parts. Wouldn’t the book be less interesting in some way without absorbing the whole story? No, she argued, because she still understands and enjoys the story. She just doesn’t torture herself with the nitty-gritty details.
While this is not a reading tactic I am likely to employ in the future, I get what she means. I’ve extrapolated her concept to define the ethos of our book club. On the third Tuesday of every month, if only for an hour, you have license to skip the scary parts of life with the Benson Book Club.
CELEBRITY BOOK CLUBS
Book clubs are a time-honored tradition. From Socrates and his students’ discussions to Benjamin Franklin’s Junto Club to the Little Leather Library, whose founders started the Book of the Month Club, humankind has always been drawn to the concept of gathering in groups to swap stories, ideas, and readings.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, book clubs exploded on a much wider scale. Oprah created her book club in 1996, and the 2.0 version still continues today. In 2016, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck started his own book club in which he chooses a book for “rookies” (younger readers) and “veterans” (older readers). The same year, based on her work with the United Nations, Emma Watson, of Harry Potter fame, created a book club called Our Shared Shelf on Goodreads to facilitate discussions about feminism through literature. As of this writing, her club has more than 224,000 members. Even more recently, Reese Witherspoon’s club Hello Sunshine has burst into the mainstream book world. With popular picks such as Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens still at the top of The New York Times bestseller list (as of this writing), Witherspoon’s book club has become an instant phenomenon.
Even though these clubs and celebrity picks are all the rage, something is missing from a book club with no interpersonal aspect. Reading is fun. Reading is educational. It is layered and emotional and exhilarating and exhausting. But what brings books truly alive is the discussion you have with other human beings who have used the same words on the page to conjure a unique tapestry in their head.
There are many different kinds of book clubs. Some rely more on a social aspect to keep people coming. Reading is nice and valued, but not essential to attendance. The book club simply acts as a reason to consistently keep up with one’s friends. Other book clubs are extremely serious. Entering the meeting room without having finished the book can be met with looks that harken more to a public execution than a friendly salon. The best book club is a mix of the two.
HOW THE BENSON BOOK CLUB WORKS
As the person in charge of adult services, I started the Benson Book Club in September 2018 upon the suggestion of my favorite patron (my mom). We meet once a month and have a consistent group of eight to nine women. This is a great size because it’s large enough that a wide variety of tastes are represented while small enough to allow everyone a chance to participate. Our book club is quite diverse in age, which provides a unique experience. Members range in age from 22 to older than 70, although as a whole, the group skews toward the Millennial age group, with six members younger than 35.
At the Benson Book Club, we meet at the same location (the downstairs boardroom) and time (6 p.m.) every month. A week prior to the meeting, I send out a reminder email with an aesthetically pleasing flier I crafted on Canva, and I post this same flier to Facebook. I have found that consistency in the date, time, location, and reminder is the key to a sustained membership. Habituating the book club so that attendance is a natural part of one’s schedule is a tactic with which I’ve had a great deal of success. We also feature a different delicious snack every month made by an exceptional baker in our ranks. If you don’t have a baking whiz, throwing a couple dollars toward some cheap snacks goes a long way in keeping booklovers happy and listening to their fellow members.
Because my library is a small, rural institution with a limited budget, I knew that if I wanted to have a library book club, I could not purchase multiple copies of the same book every month. A great option for libraries that fit this description is the Book Club in a Bag program; however, this article is geared toward those who either do not have access to a program like that or want to try something a little different. I took inspiration from the extraordinary Dover Public Library’s B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Book) Club in Dover, Ohio, and tweaked the specifics to fit my community.
Now, you may be thinking, if we are not all reading the same book, then what are we doing? Jess, this is madness! I promise, it is not. In the bring-your-own-book style, members read their own choices. In order to give this format some structure, I pick three possible themes, and members vote (eyes closed, hands up, to minimize social pressure) on which they would like to read for next month. To give everyone an out in case I happen to pick three things everyone hates, we can opt for doing a “book of choice” month when there is no theme at all. This situation has happened twice, and it was much less of a free-for-all than I was expecting.
While themes help tie us together, having the uninhibited freedom to read anything and share your thoughts on it is an exciting change of pace. By not forcing people to read things in which they have no interest, book club becomes much more accessible. Not everyone is able to read dense academic tomes or complicated literature, and just as many simply do not want to. Allowing members to choose their own books makes it so that a struggling reader can participate just as fully as a seasoned veteran.
Purposefully, I choose three very broad themes every month to present to the group. Sometimes I get a discouraging groan (I know that verse will never be a popular theme in this group) or an excited “ooo” (historical fiction will definitely pop up again), which helps me gauge what they might be interested in next. Over the course of 8 months, we have read books with a certain color on the cover, spooky books, banned books, Goodreads 2018 nominees/winners, books that are or will be movies, and historical fiction. One of the best parts about this kind of club is something every reader craves: new recommendations for the to-be-read (TBR) pile!
Reading the same book as another person is an undeniably fun experience. Geeking out over a book that you love with someone else who also loves it can be euphoric. But another feeling that rivals that high is when people love a book so much they beg you to read it—and when you do, your reading world is opened all the wider. Before starting this book club, I had never read a thriller. I simply thought they weren’t really my thing. Similarly, the woman who sits next to me had never read a book that I consider one of my top five favorites of all time. Now, both of us are better human beings for having broken book bread with one another. Expanding your horizons based on the light in the eyes of fellow book club members telling you about their latest epic read is a unique kind of literary magic.
In the Benson Book Club, because we have all read a different book, it is essential to stay on task. All of us love to socialize, and we do so at the beginning, but then we get down to business. After earnestly listening to the person describe the general plot of the book (sans spoilers) and how it fits into the theme, we are free to ask questions of the reader. Did you like the book? Would you recommend it, and why? Was it out of your comfort zone? What else did you read this month? Banter and laughter always ensue, creating a genial atmosphere of intense book love mixed with a fun social experience. On the rare occasion that we have time to fill, I whip out a game I made called Book Buzz in which I ask the members their opinions on bookish topics such as “Do you prefer hardcover or paperback, and why?” or “How do you feel about ebooks and audiobooks?”
THE VALUE OF BOOK CLUBS
I’ve heard many stories from people who have struggled with starting and maintaining book clubs at the library. There are countless demands on people’s time, and it is understandably difficult to entice people into breaking out of their patterns and committing to meeting with a group of strangers every month. That is why a low-pressure club in which members can read pretty much anything they want is a great option. This kind of club can easily fit into a reader’s regular life without causing extra work or stress. Every booklover has an ever-growing TBR list. With an open book club whose themes are broad and general, all of the members can peruse their own stack and find something that fits. You aren’t asking people to step so far out of their comfort zone that they resist—just enough to change up the pace every now and again.
While my book club is open to members of all genders, we are currently made up of women. I find this demographic to be incredibly empowering. In the Benson Book Club, women’s opinions are not only welcomed, but celebrated. We support each other, listen to each other, and validate one another’s points of view. Our meetings give each woman a chance to have the spotlight solely on her to express her thoughts—an opportunity she may not often have in her day-to-day life. I enjoy running our book club, but it mostly runs itself. I simply steer. This monthly sharing of bookish thoughts and opinions is a low-cost and light-planning event that delivers high reward.
No book club should feel like an assignment or work. It should be fun. You should want to go and spend time with your bookish friends and feel welcome to share your thoughts and ideas, loves, and passions in a book-shame-free zone. We all come from different walks of life, but at book club we are connected by the thread of mutual love of the written word. Life is stressful and complicated, full of demands and fears, and with limited opportunities for escapism. You know you have a successful book club when your members come and, if only for an hour or so, can just be themselves and skip the scary parts.