At 2pm on a Sunday afternoon, 10 people converge in a living room at Banjara Hills, Hyderabad. They are of different ages and have different professions, ranging from 19-year-old Syed Shahabuddin, an engineering student, to the host Yamini Ayyagiri, 46, who works as an IT consultant. The members of this book club have all read Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe and the big debate of the day is the character of the patriarchal protagonist, Okonkwo.

No longer does Oprah Winfrey’s recommendation have a monopoly on book clubs, as business leaders like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and even former US President Barack Obama share their reading lists on online discussions. Many of these lists include “must read" books that go beyond business books to include classics and science fiction which are packed with leadership lessons.

So, at Hyderabad, the group decides that even though Okonkwo has done some terrible things, it’s hard to hate him. “Maybe his actions are really not all that evil given his circumstances?" say some group members as the discussion carries on over tea and jalebis.

The group calls itself “A Novel Bunch" and started as a sub-group of the local Hyderabad chapter of members of Quora, the question and answer website. This bunch meets once a month because “it’s a lot more enjoyable to debate books in-person rather than reading comments online," says Apoorva Madhavan, 28, senior architect at Ashoka Builders and Developers and co-founder of A Novel Bunch.

The need for clubs

Reading is a hobby but it also helps at work , as books are packed with leadership lessons. “Classics like Don Quixote by Cervantes bring out the role of dreaming and imagination, of persistence and courage against overwhelming odds, all of which are necessary attributes for leaders," says Sankaran Manikutty, who teaches Leadership : Vision, Meaning and Reality, all through literature at both the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad and Bengaluru. Fiction helps managers get inside the inner lives of individuals who are making decisions, he says. And this is a quality that leaders and managers also need to inculcate. On the other hand, genres like science fiction imagine alternative realities, thus empowering managers to see how malleable the future may be, says science fiction writer Eliot Peper in the essay, “Why Business Leaders Need To Read More Science Fiction", for the Harvard Business Review.

Book clubs such as The Novel Bunch use a diverse reading list to make sense of the world. People who join book clubs say that being in one teaches you how others around you think and how to process information. Even experts confirm the importance of such reading to upgrade their skills in the age of artificial intelligence (AI). These clubs expose members to diverse genres simply by virtue of having a group of readers with different preferences.“Being part of a book club got me to read the kind of books I would have never picked up on my own," says Rohit Bahadur, 50, partner and head, not-for-profit and CSR advisory at Grant Thornton, New Delhi. The Delhi Book Club he is part of, has read books like One Part Woman, a novel on childlessness and infertility by Tamil author Perumal Murugan as well as What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limit Of Markets, a treatise on economics, philosophy and ethics by Michael Sandel. “It opens you up as a person , when you are compelled to read all sorts of books," says Mumbai-based home chef Laxmi Honavar, 48, whose book club has members from different age groups and professions including teachers, entrepreneurs and a graphic designer. “The younger members have different preferences—they have introduced us to books like The Lives Of A Cell by Lewis Thomas that’s both scientific and literary or Born A Crime, South African comedian Trevor Noah’s autobiography.

Differing viewpoints

For managers who work in teams, the healthy dissent in a book club is a good training ground. A play like Antigone by Greek playwright Sophocles, for instance, may be set thousands of years ago, but it deals with a problem of conflicting demands every manager faces, says Prof Manikutty. Arguments can get intense, as people of different ages, professions and life circumstances may find themselves on different sides.

Is Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead idealistic or plain stubborn? Is the old man in Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove justified in his behaviour? There is no one right answer for these questions and that is what makes them relevant to the issues a leader faces, says Prof Manikutty.

Reading a book for a book club encourages people to read deeper and more analytically. Discussing content and character helps you be more confident and persuasive even in professional discussions. Members say they often end up being persuaded to modify their points of view. “I changed my view on mental illness after discussing Sylvia’s Plath’s The Bell Jar," says Ramona Parsani, founder of Bookies 2006, a 12-member Pune-based book club that reads fiction, non fiction, short stories, etc.

Club rules

Most book clubs meet once a month. “We try to keep between 8-12 members, as that’s an ideal number—fewer can be boring and more people make the discussion become unwieldy," says Honavar. Once they reach this number, people who are interested in joining have to wait until an existing member drops out. Book club discussions, which are often accompanied by tea, coffee and snacks, usually, last for a few hours. Each discussion has a moderator, most often the founder or host of the day. “It’s the moderator’s job to ensure the discussion is productive and that we don’t veer off the subject," says Parsani. It is also the moderator’s job to ensure each member gets a chance to speak and that the debate even if it’s intense never gets acrimonious.

“It’s only fun and fruitful, if everybody follows the rules. And we have strict rules. Like, if you haven’t read the book, don’t come," says Parsani. At Honavar’s Mumbai-based club, members who haven’t read the book must pay a fine of 500. Other book clubs like The Novel Bunch and the Delhi Book Club are more lenient since they find flexibility ensures attendance. “We often allow spouses and children to join in. Once we even had a picnic book club meeting," says Bahadur.

Book clubs like these are fun as they combine the pleasures of reading with building connections with fellows readers. They make business sense too, as they help develop empathy, communication skills and leadership skills.

Yamini Ayyagari (left) and Apoorva Madhavan find debating about books enjoyable. Photo: Kumar/Mint
Yamini Ayyagari (left) and Apoorva Madhavan find debating about books enjoyable. Photo: Kumar/Mint

Create you own book club

Find readers: Start with a core group of friends and attract fellow readers through word of mouth. Also, “There have been so many offline book clubs that are subgroups of our online reading community ," says author Tanushree Singh, founder of Senior Reading Raccoons, a Facebook group for readers.

Set timings: Many book clubs meet on weekend evenings or on weekday evenings to ensure most members find it convenient to attend.

Choose venue: Homes work well. Members may go by turns or host in a coffee shop. The Patna-based book club founded by Joy Mitra, for instance, meet at Coffee Campus, a standalone coffee-shop. “The owner is really supportive . The first time we met, he came and told us he always wanted things like this to happen in his cafe," says Mitra.

Book type: Members of the club should take reading decisions. Some book clubs stick to fiction, others try to sample as many genres as they can.

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