What Makes A Perfect Book Club Choice?


The photo at the top is how book clubs like to see themselves. Flowers, wine and at least one lady who has come dressed for a cocktail party.

Book clubs and reading groups are a global phenomenon more enjoyed by women than men, and the UK reading list tends to be aimed at women. It also seems keen to confirm dated prejudices; the emphasis is mostly on twee and tasteful books with an illuminating message, so The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer is close to the top along with The Light Between Oceans, The Secret Life of Bees and Me Before You.

There are virtually no books by male authors and nothing here that will frighten the horses. Nothing experimental or even unusual, no SF, fantasy, no non-fiction, very little that’s really contemporary, nothing political, nothing too dark or demanding. The emotional and personal are favoured over the controversial. If you think that’s harsh, check out the trending lists.

The choice is very heavily skewed toward US authors too, with only a handful of books from the UK, one of the best being Lissa Evans’ ‘Old Baggage’, making me wonder how many of the books were actively pushed at groups. The USA had a head start on book clubs, which have been enthusiastically endorsed by publishers while the UK was slower to get started. It seems to me that American publishers are keener to give away books and jump-start a selling trend.

‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver is a leading book club choice and I can see that it’s perfect for a number of reasons despite its considerable length. It throws up so many interesting questions that a discussion group has much to chew over afterwards. It also has just enough root in the reality of the past to make an explanation of its history important, especially as it explores one corner of CIA involvement in African politics.

The story is told through five female voices as a pastor’s family relocate to the Congo just before it descends into civil war. The hellfire-preaching head of the clan fails to connect with the locals on any level, even mispronouncing words in his sermon that have the opposite of the desired effect. As events come to a head, we reach a point in the narrative where the story diverges along gender lines.

The four males I know who have read the novel want to follow the ideological clash between the family and the indigenous people (there are two male characters, both one-dimensional), but Kingsolver remains true to her sister protagonists and observes their separate stories post-Africa, explaining how their experiences ultimately changed them. The book is humanist, kindly, a little florid, and could have done with a little more grit but it’s a fine read, and certain set scenes like the night attack of fire ants really stand out.

I’m sure there are different agendas for different kinds of local clubs, but judging from the national choices there’s some work to do in expanding the rather limited range of top choices for group reading.


26 comments on “What Makes A Perfect Book Club Choice?”

  1. Brooke says:

    Oh dear, what sweeping generalisations Admin makes today. Leaving aside the insulting first sentence, let’s think about “trends.” Do we know the algorithm that generates the trends list? If not, what can be said, other than it’s Goodreads’ method for generating traffic/advertising.

    Our city’s meetup site names fourteen clubs, including one that focuses on history and fiction by/about Quakers (no wine there!). There are African book clubs, business and travel book clubs, sci-fi, etc. But many, many clubs are not online; e.g. a French café in historic area hosts 3-5 clubs (older, affluent, mixed gender); the library system hosts neighborhood clubs.

    Checking book club selections in our bookstores, I’m always pleased to find interesting, diverse material. Too bad publishers don’t notice this and rely on dubious second-hand analysis.

    Kingsolver’s book was heavily marketed– what else is there to say.

  2. admin says:

    Good, the response I was hoping for! I’m talking about the UK so the comparisons I make are always going to be inappropriate, but I do worry about the stealth monetisation of such groups. For the first time ever in the UK female science students did better in their exam results than males, so why, for instance, aren’t there any science books on the Goodreads list? Why does it have to be so bland? And are publishers promoting an agenda?

  3. SteveB says:

    Hmmm I pretty much agreed with the first two sentences. Then I sae Brooke’s comment!!

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I went to your link and found at least half of the authors to be male.
    I checked Vancouver Meetup to see what we have on offer and found one for mystery lovers, one for “girly” book readers, one for books and beer, one for books and coffee, one for travel writers, one for BookCrossing which is slightly different, and one that wasn’t listed for gay men and specialising in gay literature. There are at least a dozen more groups with memberships from a dozen to over a hundred.
    Of course the publishers are promoting an agenda. They want to sell books and they look at sales figures so it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Groups need to look at what libraries have to broaden their interests. Vancouver library makes club sets of books available and Burnaby has several sessions a year with librarians offering quick reviews of about twenty books a time. Don’t just look at Goodreads or any other list.

  5. Brooke says:

    Sweetie, look at Goodreads science lists: 1) nature list cover old stuff like Silent Spring; 2) general popular science, nods to Hawking and Dawkins, again old, cannot find more recent like Mukherjee’s books; and 3) cyberpunk?#. I read science, math, etc. and the young women in my network, engineers, astro, bio, medical, environmental, read alot.. Goodreads is the last place to look for/review a science book. The Royal Society’s book prize list is a well-known resource, as are the NYT, The New Yorker and Scientific American. It’s a small press/university press/special imprint market–big publishers are not interested; they are promoting the profit agenda.

    Try Testosterone Rex for a hilarious read debunking sex and gender myths.

  6. Frances gerrish says:

    Brilliant to potentially join, as I’m forever looking for good fiction novels to read

  7. admin says:

    I’m on T Rex – thanks Brooke – One other thought to chuck in, which is the matter of class in the UK; are book clubs inherently middle class?

  8. Ian Luck says:

    I’m with Groucho Marx on this: I’d never belong to anything that would have me as a member.

  9. Peter Tromans says:

    I read science books, popular and more serious. Obviously engineers, mathematicians and scientists read science books. But we live in a world where ideas such as flat earth and intelligent design are taken seriously, where people take pride in innumeracy and leading light politicians cannot understand a concept like correlation. We compound it all with an educational system designed to not educate. Can we expect a non-scientist to read a book about science and chat about it in their reading group?

    Now I’ve got my rant out of my system, I’ll make some suggestions. Most people can appreciate biography and science has some interesting characters. Two of the best, most contrasting and perhaps the greatest of the twentieth century are Dirac and Feynman. ‘The Strangest Man’ by Graham Farmelo is a wonderful insight into the most amazing man that was Dirac and you might learn some quantum mechanics along the way. There are several books about Feynman, that recount his stories: ‘Surely your joking…’, ‘What do you care what other people think’, ‘Adventures of a curious character’. I’d promote these over the more fashionable stuff of Hawking, Penrose, Dawkins and others. I’d like to hear the discussion by the book club ladies or perhaps I wouldn’t.

  10. MImi Paller says:

    Science: “We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe” is fascinating and funny.

  11. Brooke says:

    For those of us who enjoy learning about science, math, tech, but don’t have the educational background, Hawking, et. al. serve a purpose–making issues and concepts accessible to us, if we’re willing to think about what they are saying.

    “I’d like to hear the discussion by the book club ladies or perhaps I wouldn’t.” My book club ladies had a rousing discussion about Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind, touching upon Plato, Aristotle theories of mind, Wittenstein, Deutsch and updates provided by one of the members, a neurobiologist. Admin, see what stereotypes you have provoked.

  12. Liz Thompson says:

    I never joined a book reading group. Couldn’t find the time. Too busy reading all the books I’ve bought from bookshops, Amazon, Wordery, Abe Books etc. Science, science fiction, poetry, novels, children’s fiction, folklore, murder mysteries old and new, environment, linguistics, feminism, politics (mostly left wing, Marxist, socialist, anarchist), music (folk), crafts, cookery,, and from the sound of it, I’ve got a wider selection than the booklists or groups. Must admit, I never took to Westerns or fashion either in clothes or culture.

  13. eggsy says:

    A brief noodle on the web revealed local bookclubs dedicated to counter-culture; SF & Fantasy; and Books & Beer, which certainly sounds intriguing. Also one which focuses on sharing and poetry reading, no pre-reading or study required. A published list of books covered at the main public library’s club included over the last year Raymond Chandler, biography, new releases and C19th novels. Also one SF, although as that was Ishiguro it was nonthreatening to a stereotypical literary audience.
    No popular science though. But the difference between pop science and the real stuff is the difference between a book on architecture and a course on bricklaying, and surveying, chemistry, sociology etc. I can say “ooh, quantum”, but I know I have no real understanding of the field without the equations. I really wouldn’t want to discourage people from dipping their toes, though. Especially if they have little grounding in science to start with.
    As to Admin’s middle-class claim, perhaps a reference point for what middle-class is will help? Are we basing class on income? Education? Family background? Attendance of socio-literary periodic gatherings….?

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    As said the main lists are profit driven so tend to follow what they think sells, a self fulfilling prophecy as Brooke and Helen pointed out. To illustrate on my kindle even the blurbs sound similar, ‘Seven perfect days and then he disappeared’, ‘Seven days Three families One killer’, ‘Seven guests, seven secrets, one killer.’ and on.

    For book clubs as said Libraries (my local libraries have had a list to tie in with the moon landings), bookshops (my local Waterstones has some history with this.) societies and universities are also good (in Manchester the MMU is good especially for anything to do with the Gothic.)

    Online Meetup is good, when I looked at London top of the list was London Ayn Rand Meetup. Reddit has a lot on but you may have to wade through quite a lot, as noted digging a little deeper is a must. Book Riot is worth a look.

    A friend in London just joined a club to expand his reading, he mainly reads SF. So it’s good.

    My limited experience of book clubs is they tend towards the middle class. I think most of us have a good working knowledge of what middle class is, of perception plays a large part.


  15. Ellie says:

    I run a local (UK) book club, which meets at our local library – no wine or cocktail dresses involved!

    I feel looking at these kind of “most popular” lists give a distorted view. It’s probably pareto’s law 80/20 in action. Plus good reads is not a great data source for this kind of analysis.

    We’ve read some of them over the years, but also many that are not there. So those will contribute to those 20% of books that “everyone” is reading, but is very far from representative of what we, or book clubs as a whole are reading, that’s just so broad.

    We try to support the library as much as possible, so the books they have enough of do get considered more often (hence the “most popular”). However we put all suggested books (from any member) in to categories and vote once a year, so we have a mix of genres each year and people get pushed out of their comfort zone sometimes.

    But it’s a tricky balance to get a book that’s realistically (and enjoyably) readable within a month, appeals to enough of our members, and will actually have enough for us to discuss as a group.
    My favourites are where we have a split of opinion across the group.

    As a group, we’ve a mix of male and female – although admittedly started as mainly female – we’re getting towards 60/40.

    I’d say we also have a mix of classes too, although given that you need to have the time available to both read the book and attend the club, members skew towards people who can spare that time. So it probably lends itself more to those without young children, who don’t work at weekends (when we meet), the retired or those who can read while travelling etc. Plus of course, the make up of the general population of the area has a big impact.

    The media, and society loves to push stereotypes and generalisations. And also the view that one type of reading (or film/tv/music) is more worthy than another, that there are “guilty pleasures”. However, we are all worthy no matter what we enjoy.

  16. Debra Matheney says:

    I’m with Ian. Not a group person and do not want to have to read something someone else likes but I can’t stand just to talk about it over wine at someone’s living room. Prefer the privacy of my own home and to be left to my own devices.

  17. Ian Luck says:

    Peter – you might enjoy the scientific books written by John Gribbin. He takes terrifyingly difficult ideas, and makes them easy to understand, and without dumbing down. That’s a great skill.

  18. Michelle says:

    I Went to a book club at the local library and we were ‘lucky enough to have the head librarian from the county council visiting.

    She sneered at each person’s own book choice. Declared they had proper groups at the Main library devoted to Shakespeare and poetry. Told us that we weren’t meant to enjoy the books given to us at book club but to feel challenged.

    She was right I didn’t enjoy the books, the main challenge being understanding how such boring dross had been published. I never went back.

  19. Peter Tromans says:

    Ian – That’s a good suggestion. I have a few of John Gribbin. He is very good. I finished the one on Feynman a few weeks ago.

    David Deutsch is worth reading, especially for non-scientists. He brings a scientific way of thinking to a lot problems that are not obviously of a scientific nature.

  20. Helen Martin says:

    Michelle – your library system needs a new head librarian. I am so glad no one sneers at book choices around our library (which happens to be the central library of the system) and no one sneers at patron’s questions, either, although they probably have private notebooks to record the best.
    Our bookCrossing group doesn’t read specific books, just reports what we’ve been reading and liking (or not) and why. We exchange books with each other and then release the rest. Big festival the end of September when all the publishers, magazine writers, authors, and artists come together and tout our stuff. A great day with readings, demonstrations, contests and general book stuff. I’ll be lettering personal bookmarks for people.

  21. Ian Luck says:

    If you are asked to select a book for a book club, then anything by William Burroughs might be good for a laugh. Or maybe ‘The Epic Of Gilgamesh’? It’s sheer age makes it horrifying to some readers – it predates the Old Testament by a couple of millennia, at least – and some bits were ‘borrowed’ by the newer book. It’s unrelatable to most modern things, being about a King from one of the earliest cities on the face of the earth. Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ is another fun one – but it has to be the one in Old English. Tell your readers not to worry – the knob and fart gags are still there. They have to work for them, that’s all.

  22. Helen Martin says:

    Our kids read Gilgamesh in a modern translation and it does them good to stumble through a totally foreign culture with a very different idea as to how a story ought to end.

  23. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – I agree. Another slim volume that I enjoy a lot is ‘Sir Gawain And The Green Knight’. It’s beautiful, and creepy and strange. It also is a mediaeval romance that concludes somewhere that most people would consider far from romantic – the Wirral Peninsula.

  24. Lauren C says:

    Let me throw into the mix my atheist book club, the James Joyce book club that just met tonight to continue plowing through “Ulysses” (so f*n painful), our Sherlock Holmes scion (much alcohol involved), and our classic lit group that takes a very broad view of what is a classic. No chick lit allowed.

  25. Helen Martin says:

    Ooh, haven’t read Sir Gawain since university – but it’s on my shelf. Going to have to work my way again through what I have here.

  26. Ian Luck says:

    Lauren – I’ve tried reading Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ several times, and each time, I’ve got bored. I don’t get bored with books, normally, but I can honestly say that ‘Ulysses’ made me want to drown things. I’m beginning to suspect that NOBODY has ever read it cover to cover and actually enjoyed it, and that If I finished it, I’d have to read something by this site’s favourite typist (Da* B*ow*) to ‘take the taste away’ so to speak. I have read, and enjoyed, several books by William S. Burroughs, knowing full well that when he wrote some of them, he was ‘Living above the chemist’, and knew he was writing something to deliberately shock and annoy. He also had some ideas that have been taken up by mainstream science fiction, both in words and in movies. But the dull jumble of text that is ‘Ulysses’ – nope. I don’t give up easily – I read ‘The Count Of Monte Cristo’ for the nth time, last week, after picking it up whilst looking for something else, and idly reading the first few pages. It always happens.

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