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How to start a book club and keep it going

How to start a book club and keep it going
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First Published: Fri, May 29 2009. 08 50 PM IST

Page-turner: An engrossed reader at the JN Petit Library in Mumbai. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Page-turner: An engrossed reader at the JN Petit Library in Mumbai. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Updated: Fri, May 29 2009. 08 50 PM IST
When you move to a new city, there are several indicators to show that you have settled down. A key marker is when you start or join a club because it indicates that you have developed a community and a routine. In every location that I have lived as an adult, I have started or joined book clubs. One failed spectacularly and the other succeeded just as spectacularly.
Page-turner: An engrossed reader at the JN Petit Library in Mumbai. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
In Bangalore, where I live now, I am part of a book club, a film club, a hiking group, a soccer league, a gourmet dining group, a design consortium and a virtual parenting community. This is in addition to all the building and alumni associations that we all get drafted into. But to me, it all starts with a book club.
Starting a group—any group—is tricky because it usually involves opinionated people—or it should—each of whom has an agenda and a view on how to do things. Bangalore has thriving cinema clubs, bird-watching societies, hiking and foodie groups galore. Based on my association with these groups, I’ve come up with a set of rules to help those who want to start, say, a star-gazing society in their building complex. Not a bad idea actually.
• S tart with a passionate and charismatic leader. Most groups are anchored by one or several leaders, each of whom has a clear vision of what he or she wants the group to achieve. Members may question the leader’s quirks and dislike his dictums but it is the leader who holds them together.
• If you are not charismatic or opinionated, try to find co-leaders who are. When I started my book club in Manhattan, I started it with three other women, mostly because I lacked the confidence to start it by myself. The four “core members” proved to be a great anchor and we kept adding members. The club survives eight years later and though I don’t know many of the new members, I am still on its mailing list. In fact, I saw them all last weekend.
• It helps if you have a clear vision of what you want from the group, whether it is de rigueur black tie or beginning a hike at 6am. Once you know what you want, it is easier to coax and harangue people into falling in line. Book clubs are notoriously all over the place. One book club in Hong Kong is mostly a social networking club. People discuss the book for 5 minutes before gossiping, venting and catching up. Which is fine. As long as everyone in the group is okay with it. Most of these groups end up self-selecting members anyway and people who tire of the informality drop out and choose more structured groups with printed book reviews, allocated speaking times, previously emailed questions about the book, rules and punishments.
• Increase membership if you have the space. The Bangalore Wine Club has close to 100 members, while the Bangalore Black Tie society has around 30. Having a lot of members dilutes intimacy but reduces the pressure on members to show up for every event.
• Be very careful when you add new members, particularly if it is a small group. They have to gel with the rest. In my Manhattan book club, one well-meaning member inducted a close friend who—as it turned out—everyone else hated. There were a dozen of us by then and we were faced with a dilemma: Who would bell the cat? Who would tell this gent that we didn’t want him in our club? Rather than face up to this unpleasant proposition, we took the coward’s way out. We told him that we were disbanding the book club because meeting once a month was just too difficult given our hectic lives and he was free to find other book clubs. He left our mailing list and we reconvened.
• How often you meet depends on your membership and geography. All of us in my Singapore book club lived in the same building. Meeting at 5pm on a Saturday became easy because most of our children were downstairs playing and we could convene for chai and samosas (and ahem, book discussions) before taking off for dinners or parties. Meeting on Saturday at 5pm becomes problematic in a city such as Bangalore because of traffic and geography. Even if the book club lasts only an hour, the distance and traffic require that you commit 3 hours for going and coming. Far better to meet less frequently and, if possible, when there is less traffic.
• Last but not least, what you serve at your soirée usually becomes a bone of contention and competition. My Manhattan book club had women who were passionate cooks. They would serve us themed delicious dinners that went with the book. There were also some bachelors who made up in strong martinis what they lacked in culinary skills. After a while, some of the folks who either didn’t want to or couldn’t cook resented the spread that was served by the passionate cooks. We had a discussion about how to prevent food from becoming the centrepiece of the gathering. But there was no resolution: Some members splurged; others provided the liquor in abundance. When I started the book club in Singapore, perhaps as a reaction, I insisted that only water needed to be served. Again, vociferous protests: “Chai to rakhna hi padega (You have to have tea),” said one. Some snacks, yaar, said another. So we drew the line at tea. Just tea. That worked.
In my Bangalore book club, there is no rule. One woman served a multi-course chaat dinner when it was her turn to host. It was fantastic and completely eclipsed the discussion. Being a foodie, I don’t care if the book is merely an excuse to get together and eat. But others take offence and view each spread as competition that they have to match. The trick, I guess, is to get members whose ego will allow them to serve crudités after a gourmet meal and feel no pangs of guilt or competition; or to get members who are on the same page (pun intended) with respect to what constitutes “snacks” for a book club.
Shoba Narayan reads to eat. Ergo, she seeks book clubs with competitive cooks as hosts. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, May 29 2009. 08 50 PM IST