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Etiquette Rules For The Modern Book Club

Abandon a book if it’s utterly intolerable and never choose a novel over 400 pages, says our books editor

By Laura Brading

It was when my book club exceeded 50 members that I realised we had a management issue. Sure, we were all mums with very young and snotty children and, thus, the attendance rate generally sat at less than 50 per cent. But that’s still more of a small seminar vibe than intimate book club.

Management had not done its due diligence. Management had not specified a cap on member numbers. Management was barely operational. Sure, your cousin’s neighbour who has just moved to the area can join. Of course the book club should have an open Facebook group. What was management thinking?

Management was me, dear reader. And while a 50-plus-person book club was not what I had in mind when I innocently invited a few friends around to my house back in 2016, that’s what it became. It was a glorious time when a group of marvellous women gathered monthly to engage in robust and raucous conversation, have a laugh, often a cry, and generally process complicated life stuff. Sometimes we even spoke about the book. We loved it. We lasted seven years before it became too difficult to find venues to host us and the book club fizzled out.


A book club can be whatever its members want it to be

The point is: a book club can be whatever its members want it to be. If your group is happy to chat about the book for 15 minutes and then move on to dissecting recent events on Real Housewives of Atlanta, that’s completely fine. If your members actually want to read all of Jack Kerouac’s books and discuss them, at length, with no interruptions for gossip, wine or toilet breaks, that’s fine, too (although I will not be joining).

What’s important is transparency and a bit of etiquette. If you know what your book club expects of you then I have no doubt that, 20 years from now, you will all be in Italy on a gondola together à la Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda in Book Club: The Next Chapter (yes, I did rewatch both Book Club films as research for this article).

With this in mind, here are my do’s and don’ts for the modern book club. And if you’re reluctant to take advice from a failed book club manager, scroll a little further to read tips from actual book club professionals.

DO read the book. At least some of it. If it’s been a bat-shit crazy month, read as much as you can and still come along. But there will be spoilers.

DON’T choose books that are more than 400 pages long unless you have majority approval from your members. This is book club, not Extension English.

DO let everyone have a go at choosing the book. It can be helpful to allocate one person to captain each month who decides not only what you read but where the book club will be held.

DO experiment. Short stories, books in translation, diverse authors and themes, books that aren’t by dead white men etc etc.

Unless your aunt is Elizabeth Strout, don’t choose books by people you’re related to

If a book is utterly intolerable and the act of reading it feels injurious, DO check in with your members to see if they are having a similarly loathsome reaction. It’s ok to abandon it if so. This would have been a helpful rule for the time someone in my book club, attempting to understand the culty buzz, chose Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life.

DON’T choose Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life.

Unless your aunt is Elizabeth Strout, DON’T choose books by people you’re related to. You want to be able to talk freely and honestly about your selections without offending someone’s third cousin.

DO bring questions if you’re a Type A and that helps you sleep at night.

DON’T prepare a powerpoint to accompany your points. There is a limit to how much you can prepare before it annoys other members

Disagreeing makes for great conversation

DON’T steamroll the conversation. If you get the sense you’ve been talking for too long, you probably have.

DO let everyone speak. I suggest going around the group to get everyone’s initial thoughts to begin with. That way, if conversation domination occurs, at least everyone has had a chance to say their bit.

DON’T hold people’s views against them. Disagreeing makes for great conversation.

DO choose a particular day (e.g. the first Wednesday of each month) and stick to it. It’s easy to remember and avoids having to create a spreadsheet of everyone’s calendar entries.

DO discuss if the group will cap at a certain number of members. Learn from my mistakes.

DON’T relate the book to a dream you had. Ever.

DO keep track of the amount of times you begin a sentence with, “it reminded me of a time in my life when…”. Consider how valuable your next anecdote will be. And do keep in mind that this is not your personal therapy session.

DON’T think your selection is a measure of how intelligent and sophisticated you are. Sometimes it’s nice to read a rom-com.

Tips From Actual Book Club Professionals

Naomi Fisher, bookseller and host of Potts Points Bookshop book club
Don’t choose the book that everyone will like, once everyone has said how much they like it, there will be nothing more to discuss. Choose the book that has interesting issues, structure, point-of-view, language, things that will generate conversation.

Make sure everyone goes into it with an open mind and a willingness to talk through opposing opinions. There’s nothing worse than a member who thinks their opinion is the correct one, and shouts down others.

Please read the book, there’s not much point trying to talk about it if you haven’t, and it’s disrespectful to the host, whether that’s the staff of a bookshop or your friend, who has put a lot of time and effort into it.

Support your local independent bookshop, you may be able to find a cheaper price on the internet but nothing can replace the expert advice of a professional bookseller. 

Heather McNab, book club host and programmer from Chaotic Social
Don’t be afraid of a little (or a lot) of disagreement about the book. While at first glance it can seem like choosing a book everyone will love is the best route, in my experience having really varied opinions about the book makes for an excellent discussion. And let’s be honest, if everyone likes the book and agrees it was fabulous, the discussion is likely to be a tad boring. Lean into a bit of controversy (while being respectful, of course!) and get people who disagree to debate it out and provide a bit of entertainment for the group. Encouraging members to debate ideas is also a great way to learn a lot more about people’s perspectives and backgrounds, and, in my experience, brings the book club closer together – and takes the pressure off when choosing what to read

Lucy Pearson, book blogger, writer, bibliotherapist + host of Bondi Literary Salon at Gertrude and Alice
Do finish the book – or prepare yourself for spoilers. I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to reading a book at the very last minute (I’ve been known to walk and read en route to The Bondi Literary Salon – the book club I co-founded with Gertrude & Alice in Bondi) but it can make it tricky for everyone to navigate a discussion if the book has particular plot twists or an ending that might ruin the reading experience for someone who hasn’t finished it.

Use your book club as a reason to diversify your TBR pile, and to read beyond the bounds of what you usually read. I get it – life is too short for bad books, and it’s tempting to read books that you know you’ll like – authors whose words you love, genres with which your familiar. However, reading only what you know you’ll enjoy is doing a disservice to the endless body of literature that’s out there. Speak to other book club members about a classic they loved from school, a memoir they came across that they unexpectedly loved, an author they adore that no-one else has read. Make it your mission to use the bookshelves of your fellow readers to read more often, and more diversely than before.

Ruby Bisson, owner of WellRead book subscription
It’s a challenge to choose books that appeal to everyone. Remind your members that book club isn’t always about reading in your comfort zone. However, to avoid total disappointment, allow each member to take a turn hosting and choosing the book club picks. If every member has a go at choosing the book at least once a year, they can guarantee they’ll enjoy at least one of the selections.


BY Laura Brading

Laura is PRIMER's books editor

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