I went to a cracking little bookclub when I lived in Oxford, where we sat in a cosy pub once a month and all the people around me sounded like they knew loads about what they were talking about. Everyone had a chance to vote for the next book on the list and in general it was just a ruddy nice time and I always cycled home with my book in my basket feeling a little bit like a better person for having actually left my bed to drink wine that night (Tracy Emin just pipped me to the post on that exhibition by the way).
When I moved back to my local area in the middle of nowhere I was unable to find a bookclub where I could get drunk and spout off my opinions about books. The only ones I could find had a ‘one in one out’ waiting list (code for ‘we have to wait for one of the members to die’) or they involved having to read Ruth Rendall in a stranger’s chinzy lounge eating overly buttered sandwiches with my legs crossed. So I decided in February 2013 to see if I could rustle up a tipsy book club like the one in Oxford, for lovers of liquor and literature, and call it Reading Between the Wines.
I put a shout out on facebook about this little gathering, chose a night of the week, chose a venue, and chose a really stupid book choice. Note to others who are thinking of starting a bookclub – maybe don’t pick a book about how every time a certain nursery rhyme is uttered a whole load of kids drop dead. Over and over again. And again. And some more. Cheers to Palahniuk for almost stopping the club before it started. Slightly more death than I’d planned for but at least it served the purpose of showing I didn’t want this to be a club that reads the equivalent of the ‘easy listening’ playlist on Spotify.
3 friends showed up out of sympathy to me. I have nice friends.
We drank some wine and turned the book over in our hands a bit and looked at the front and back cover while we said ‘yeh it was ok’. Once everyone’s alcohol limit for driving had been reached we were allowed to leave, and I tentatively said I hoped to see them next month. Someone chose a book. I thought ‘cool’.
Next month there were more of us. People suggested things. I liked the suggestions. I didn’t tell anyone they were stupid. It seemed to work.
And now that we have around 16 members, with a core of 8 who are there despite flooding, and other countryside obstacles, I’m assuming they don’t hate it because many of them bring a friend, and they often say nice things about it, and write me cards which make me cry (in a good way).
I’ve had various requests of advice from people wanting to set up a bookclub. After completely winging it for years now here is what I think about it all:
Don’t be put off about living in a tiny place. My own fantastic gathering of people happens in a place that only has a blacksmith, a church, and a pub. In places like this you can tap in to the fact that there is little else to do, a lot of people will have shit broadband services, and many will have started drinking at such a young age in the local pub that they will be down there every night anyway and may not even notice they’re even in your bookclub. Use these people to bump up your numbers and to fill the background in photos and make you look popular on social media.
Do have a bookclub ‘afterparty’ when the situation allows. It’s a great time for non bookclub members to dip their toe in, see what all the fuss is about, and also they’ll usually tell other people about you when they hear of others looking for a bookclub.
Let go of your own reading list. So you want to read everything Steinbeck has every written? Twice? Great. And so you should. But unless your book club is held in the National Steinbeck Centre then you really need to indulge in your own shit in your own time. Let everyone have some kind of say in the books, or the genres at least. You’ll often find that people will love to follow a theme for a little while anyway so you can totally have a few months of a theme ranging from ‘autobiographies’ or ‘books that won the transgender immigrant writer of the year’ award , but be open minded to all books. I won’t lie – you will hate some books, but others will hate your choices too at times. The flip side is that you will most probably fall in love with a book you would have previously assumed you’d dislike from your preconceived ideas. Even if you end up reading a book you thought you’d dislike, and it proves you right, well done – it is sometimes good to be reminded of what your taste is and often we don’t actually read the books we think we don’t like. Besides, you can still come along for the wine and opinions. And hey, maybe there is only one other person in the group who also doesn’t like that book. Maybe you end up talking about how you’re both better than all the rest of us because you clearly have more discerning taste. Maybe you go for a drink after the bookclub, maybe you end up getting married in the Bodleian and having a smug happy highbrow life together. Just turn up and read godammit.
Pick a few books in advance. I have found it really useful to gather book suggestions for as far ahead as the whole year. This has a few advantages:
1. People can choose to plan holidays around the months they really want to attend (often to showcase the book they chose)
2. Some people are avid readers and want to know immediately what they next book is so they can make a head start
3. If people know they can’t make one month they can use their time reading ahead to the next one
4. People can do all their book shopping in one big go, or order books ahead at the library
5. New people who ask you about joining the club will always ask ‘what sort of books do you read?’. Having the whole list ahead gives people a clearer idea of what type of book club you are.
Stick to the same schedule. I tried to start a bookclub 2 years before this one. It was a group of friends who had just had children and wanted to get out and meet others, and read more. I spent the whole time working around other people’s changing schedules. The meetings never happened. I gave up on bookclubs for over a year. It’s sad when someone who you really want to attend can’t make it one month, especially if they have chosen the book. But having a set day is the only way to keep it going. Trust me on this one, and this is coming from a total people pleaser who would love to be able to change it month by month to have the maximum attendees possible.
Get a fantastic ‘Second in Command’. I am lucky enough to have a remarkable lady who helps me out so much. She is the Question Master on many an occasion and comes up with themed stuff like this (yes, the questions are in the boot).
Go online. People bloody love to be tagged in a photo holding a book. Make it happen.It’s useful to have a little public or private space for members to share stuff between meetings. I have a facebook page to create events, invite people to them, and share updates, and a private group where members post opinions and reviews about the book or ask questions to each other. I also send out a few emails a month to the whole mailing list as not everyone is on social media. It helps remind people to keep reading and gives people a chance to let you know if they can’t make the next meeting.
Get out of your house and meet in a (nice) pub – you’ll find that members (and yourself) often barely have time to finish the book, let alone whip the hoover round and arrange their book collections to hide any shitty books from their peers. Find a venue where people can order what they like, leave when they like, and leave someone else to do the washing up. It also allows people to drop out last minute, which brings me on to the final point…
Don’t be a dick to people if they don’t show up or drop out altogether. Sometimes people have an idea of what a bookclub will be like. Believe it or not, your gathering of pissheads reading that one book plucked out from the millions and millions on offer may not be what they want to do right in that moment in time, or ever again for that matter. There was enough of that crap at school (Disclaimer: without the alcohol)*.
Failing all that, just do a quiz and give out some free stuff sometimes.
*My schooling was in Wales so this disclaimer does not apply.