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It’s true that the act of hosting book clubs has been a part of the American literary tradition since the 19th century, but in recent years, it has become more popular than ever. Celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey host digital book clubs with hundreds of thousands of followers. Newspapers and online publications from the Los Angeles Times to BuzzFeed to 4B have launched book clubs of their own. On social media and on websites like Goodreads, there are hundreds of online book clubs a reader can join. And, of course, there are clubs run by every day readers who love talking about books with like minded lit-lovers.

Maybe starting a reading group is something you have always dreamed of doing, but how do you choose the right book for your book club and make sure your guests love reading the books and discussing them with the group? What is it exactly that makes for a great book club read? I spoke to three women who run book clubs about how they select titles and how you — yes YOU! — can pick a great book for your group:

Barbara Vandenburgh, USA TODAY Books Editor & Moderator of the First Draft Book Club at Changing Hands Bookstore

Barbara Vandenburgh, courtesy of Pat Shannahan/The Arizona Republic.

When did you join your first book club (as a member or founder) and why? What inspired you to start the First Draft Book Club?

I’ve long been a fan of Arizona’s beloved indie bookstore, Changing Hands. When they opened a second location with a book bar in central Phoenix, close to my home, I was ecstatic. Books and booze within walking distance, what’s not to love? I was writing for The Arizona Republic at the time and started (rather obnoxiously, I think) stalking the bookstore on social media. The store soon approached me to see if I’d be interesting in moderating their first-ever store-run book club, the First Draft Book Club. I could not say yes fast enough. We had our first meeting in June 2015, not really knowing what to expect. I didn’t think of Phoenix as being a literary city and was hoping for maybe a dozen people to show. Around 100 people came to talk books that night, and they haven’t stopped showing up since. Looks like I was wrong about Phoenix.

“Our best conversations have been about the books that leave room for readers to disagree.”

What is your main goal when selecting a book club book? How do you go about choosing titles? Do you use a certain criteria or set of rules when choosing?

Since we meet monthly, it’s important that the book not be too long, so people have enough time to finish; I find setting a cap around 400 pages works best. But most important is that the book gives us something meaty to discuss: a thorny social issue, a divisive main character, a complicated motivation. Our best conversations have been about the books that leave room for readers to disagree. There’s nothing wrong with crowd-pleasers, but they’re dreadfully dull to discuss.

What is the most challenging part of running a book club?

I’ve had to become a better, smarter, more intentional reader. That’s meant diversifying my reading so we cover a rich mix of authors, identities, genres and subject matters. It’s also meant learning how mine books for discussion fodder to better guide the conversation in a way that’s smart but still accessible. You need to hit that sweet spot where the meeting feels just enough like English class so you walk away feeling enriched, but not so much that it’s no longer fun. Booze helps.

“Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and others with book selections that fall outside comfort zones.”

What advice would you give to someone in charge of selecting their book club’s book?

Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and others with book selections that fall outside comfort zones. Every single book club meeting, without fail, I hear one of two things: “I never would have picked up this book on my own but I’m so glad I read it,” or “I walked into this meeting hating the book, but now I’m re-thinking how I feel.” I find that feedback so much more rewarding than if everyone simply loves the book. Also – and this is harder than it sounds – you’ll need to learn not to let your feelings get hurt when people hate a book you love.

Can you suggest some titles that make great book club books?

In the past year, the three books that yielded the most fruitful conversations were Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, Normal People by Sally Rooney, and There There by Tommy Orange. They’re three very different writers from different backgrounds with different styles. Their books really could not be more unalike, except that they’re thoughtful and challenging. Once you find a book that has those qualities, you’ve already won half the battle.

Alisha Ramos, Founder & CEO of Girls’ Night In and the GNI Book Club

Alisha Ramos, courtesy of Ramos

When did you join your first book club (as a member or founder) and why? What inspired you to start the GNI Book Club?

The Girls’ Night In book club was actually the first official book club I’ve joined! We started the book club simply because our audience members asked for one when we first launched about two years ago. As it turns out, reading books is the perfect indoorsy activity.

What is your main goal when selecting a book club book? How do you go about choosing titles? Do you use a certain criteria or set of rules when choosing?

When selecting a book club book, we look for a few things. We generally read books that are written by women and non-binary authors, are available/accessible to our community, and allow for a lively discussion.

“It also speaks directly to our mission of helping people relax, recharge, and build more meaningful community.”

What is the most challenging part of running a book club?

Luckily, Girls’ Night In has an amazing, entire team operating our book club program called GNI Reads — everything from our wonderful hosts in 10 different cities who organize and host each book club, to our programming and operations leads who help us manage and troubleshoot everything from working with vendors, sponsors, and promoting the book club. Luckily, if you were to start your own book club with your own group of friends, I’m sure it’s a lot less work than this as we do this on a national scale in several cities! It’s hard work but we love gathering women from our community together — we’ve found many friendships blossom as a result of meeting up at book club. It also speaks directly to our mission of helping people relax, recharge, and build more meaningful community.

What advice would you give to someone in charge of selecting their book club’s book?

This seems obvious but know your audience and make sure it’s something that can lend to a good discussion for that group. For Girls’ Night In, that means straying away from genres like autobiographies or self-helpy books as those tend to be more factual or to be taken at face value. A great book club discussion should inspire some debate and questions that are hard to answer definitively! Some of our best book club discussions at Girls’ Night In have happened when half of the attendees didn’t like the book.

Can you suggest some titles that make great book club books?

Honestly, I’d suggest any of our recent book club picks! Is that too easy? Some of my favorites have been: Educated by Tara Westover, The Power by Naomi Alderman, and Circe by Madeline Miller.

Karah Preiss, Co-founder of Belletrist Book Clubwith Emma Roberts

Karah Preiss & Emma Roberts, courtesy of Preiss

When did you join your first book club and why? What inspired you to start the Belletrist Book Club?

Emma and I have known each other for over 10 years, and early on had always had a “friendship book club” where we would mail books to one another (because she lives in LA and I live in NY, and we both live for receiving mail). Years ago, Emma started posting her #CurrentlyReading on Instagram and people were so enthusiastic about her picks that we thought it would be amazing to start a dedicated book club where we could recommend and discuss picks. It just so happens that this was two years ago, a time when bookstagram was exploding and there was a real appetite for talking about books on social media. We also took to Instagram because we thought it would be an amazing way to see what people around the world are reading and where they’re reading. If somebody says to you that millennials don’t read, just direct them to the bookstagram hashtag on Instagram.

“…we try to choose books (for the most part) that aren’t alreadyextremely popular.”

What is your main goal when selecting a book club book? How do you go about choosing titles? Do you use a certain criteria or set of rules when choosing?

We always say that our only criteria is that we don’t have criteria. I think we try to choose books (for the most part) that aren’t already extremely popular. We hope that Belletrist can inspire people to read as a form of self care and want to read a book a month, but also, and maybe more importantly, a place that people can discover new writers. That said, we have chosen books by very established writers, but we hope that we have given people a strong mix. We also tend towards literary fiction/nonfiction.

“Don’t always choose based on your personal preference, but never choose something only because you think other people will like it.”

What is the most challenging part of running a book club?

There are so many books published each year… even each month! Choosing is the hardest part!

What advice would you give to someone in charge of selecting their book club’s book?

Don’t always choose based on your personal preference, but never choose something only because you think other people will like it. Also, a book club is more than just meeting once a month and discussing a book with your close friends. Reading a book with a group of people who you know (and even who you don’t know personally) is amazingly therapeutic. Having a regular, daily reading schedule is the best way to disconnect.

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