February 22, 2018

Try a different kind of book club: Go topical!

Written by:
Jennifer Robinson

Tags: ,

Once upon a time, I began a monthly book club at my library revolving around a theme instead of a specific book. Personally, I was struggling to add fiction to my steady diet of non-fiction. Likewise, it helped our patrons grow their reading tastes, while still letting them choose what they wanted to read. For each theme, I present titles for consideration and patrons are welcome to read a suggested title, pick their own, or fake it. Patrons like the fact that nobody *knows* if they read “the book” thus all meetings are guilt-free!

How does it work?

Every month I propose a dozen fiction and non-fiction books that deal with a theme. Patrons are also encouraged to pick their own books around the theme. The titles I suggest generally follow a set of criteria: they are available as hard copy, have attractive cover art, reflect core fiction genres and key non-fiction styles, and have a review posted in the library catalogue. Award-winning titles and those with starred reviews are especially well-received.

Since participants read a different book on the same theme, discussion questions focus on how a book expresses the theme. Past themes have included: the Olympics, Indigenous voices, human-animal connection, literary & genre awards, tough topics, Black History Month, love, travel, women and literature, bibliotherapy, Canadiana, book and a movie, romance, tomorrow, a well-read life, and literary holidays. I do a yearly survey of interests to generate future topics.

Where do the questions come from?

Members pull an open-ended question randomly from a bowl that is passed around, which has led to some awkward moments, but they are welcome to try it, pass, or make their own question. If they get lost, I try to offer them a lifeline, like the game show option to phone a friend for help.

No really, where do the questions come from?

Stephen King cited Planet X as the source for his creativity. Truly, it’s hard to pinpoint. Since we don’t all read the same book, questions are based on information gleaned from various and sundry internet sources related to theme, genre, and a host of other factors.

Note: Book club sites offer generic questions which are often too generic (go figure!). NoveList genre guides and Amnesty International book picks inspire some of the questions. Topical articles and forums are also good bets.

How do I get participants on the same page?

Participants receive two handouts in advance of the meeting: one shows book options and the other describes the topic. The “book options” handout is double-sided: each side resembles a 4x3 quilt displaying book covers (fiction and non-fiction, respectively.) The “topic” handout describes the theme for the next month. For the latter, I usually Google a basic definition (gasp!), read a Wikipedia article (blasphemy!), and put it in my own words. On occasion, I develop a bonus handout which brings a special reader’s advisory focus, administers a questionnaire, or provides a guide on how to use a library product to find more books.

After the physical meeting, all members (including online members) receive an email reminder with the PDFs (as detailed above) for the next meeting.

What should I know about the topic?

Fear that nobody would say *anything* led to a cheat sheet of talking points for my own reference. There was nothing to fear -- book lovers also love to talk about books! The research and questions serve as a map for the conversation, but we’ve grown from a small group to a mid-sized one as people like the idea of talking about books without feeling like they’ve been assigned a book.

How do I find readers?

I’ve recruited lots of book club members by chatting people up at the circulation desk. During the item check-out process, I engage as many patrons as possible in book chats, genre chats, and topics of interest, and tie it into the book club where possible. Aside from the circulation desk, I also make a concerted effort to point out the “Book Club” display I develop. We’ve also had “Bring a Buddy” nights (and members often bring more than one!).

Love the idea and going to create a themed book club of your own?

I’d love to hear from you! I’ve got samples of the handouts I’ve created, information about how I handle lulls in the conversation, what my questions have looked like and more. Plus, I’d love to chat with you about your suggestions and any similar book clubs you’ve run.

Looking for more resources on running book clubs? We've got you covered! 

Jennifer Robinson is an Assistant at the Amherstview Branch of the County of Lennox and Addington Libraries.


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