Starting a Reading Group

An online list I subscribe to had a request for advice/stories about starting a reading group. Here’s the quick answer I gave:

I’ve participated in three startups. I’ll just describe each one briefly. The only universal is that none of them have used a discussion leader.

First group (and closest to my heart): Four friends, two of whom were newly dating, got together in a home over a meal and then discussed Kim. The group has been meeting for a meal in each other’s homes an average of ten times a year since 1988. The group made it through the early de facto but never formal departure of one of the founders, the partnership and later breakup of the couple, a period when it felt more like an eating group than a reading group, and the eventual departure of all but one of the founders. Two of the founders shepherded the group through its adolescence. Members pick books in rotation. Early rules were no poetry, no short stories. It’s always been a pretty low-key group. The best size seems to be around eight (since they need to fit around a dinner table), and members reflect a dispersed friendship network: New members come in at the invitation of a member after the member checks out the idea with the rest of the group. The kind of member in shortest supply: straight men. Next shortest supply: people who want to do "serious" reading for self-improvement. Since 2001 the group has been doing a fundraising readathon on MLK weekend, when they go away to a borrowed vacation home. You can find the list of books up through 2001, when I moved away, here: reading club.

Second group: New city, new employer, sent out a company-wide email. Got about five responses. We met three or four times and petered out. Our reasons for wanting a group differed too much; we lived too far away from each other to sustain meeting in one another’s homes but had no good alternative. There were no relationships that were close enough to sustain the group long enough for it to cohere.

Third try: Not-so-new city and employer. Sent out emails to work, Quaker meeting, and contra-dance community, as well as posting an invitation at an internet site. (Can’t remember the name of it. Reader’s roundtable? dunno.) Started with a large pool of casually interested people. It stymied me for quite a while because I didn’t want to be picking and choosing, but it was definitely more people than I wanted to be in a group with. Eventually they were winnowed out by questions of location, frequency, etc. There were probably fifteen people still around to be invited to participate in setting the first meeting. Five bowed out right away, and a couple more kind of kept their feet in but never showed up. We spent time the first night talking about what kind of books we’re interested in reading; verdict: mostly but not entirely fiction, one person doesn’t want to read "classics" (we’ll see how that pans out). We’re about to discuss our fourth book. We meet at a central location after work (6:30) and bring snack foods and beverages. We’re very spread out geographically, and the big hurdle I see facing us is what happens if we need to meet somewhere else. Current composition is a close Quaker friend and another Quaker I don’t know so well, two coworkers from my immediate office, another coworker from another department, a total stranger who responded to the internet listing, and my boyfriend. Two men, six women, age range mid-twenties to almost sixty. There are some close relationships, but not everyone knows one another. I’m organizing the meeting setups using evite.

Some things I’d suggest from what I’ve learned:

–Be clear as clear as you can with ourself about what you want if you’re going to be putting out the energy to get it started.
–Have something to sustain the group at first: a structure, putting yourself out to be the organizer, or a couple of strong friendships in the group.
–Get some diversity of perspective in the group.
–Decisions about food and location are just as important as decisions about what kind of books and whether to have leaders.

Good luck!

2 Replies to “Starting a Reading Group”

  1. Have you ever tried an online reading and discussion group? That diminishes the social aspects but has the advantage of convenience in time and place. As you pointed out though, the social aspects are as important to sustaining the group as the right type of texts are.

  2. The list I originally posted this entry to is a startup online discussion group. It grew out of an email list for copyeditors. We’ve picked the first book (Washington Square, which I decided not to read), but haven’t started discussing it. Several people were reading Flatland and have been making comments on it.

    The social aspects I so enjoy in my previous groups are actually a bit tiresome online. Some people will post many small comments, and I find it much harder to sort people out and form an impression of them with so much traffic on the list.

    One of our next books will be Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I want to read, and when we get into that discussion I think I’ll have a really good idea of whether or not I like the online format.

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