How To Set Up An Actually Fun Book Club (Without Becoming Prematurely Middle-Aged)
The Debrief: We'll take our novels with a bottle (or seven) of wine please.
Illustration by Marina Esmeraldo
There's a widely held perception that book clubs are the preserve of the middle aged. Something you set up if you're married with kids and want to put a sophisticated front on your desire to talk about primary school places and Tuscan villas for an evening.
This is a pity, seeing as book clubs are pretty darn enjoyable if you’re twenty-something too; not in the least because save rampaging through the town wearing homemade fancy dress or having sex on a weekday afternoon, when else do you get to experience such a pleasing throwback to your university years? After all, there’s something strangely comforting about sitting in a room surrounded by like-minded people, their faces shining with academic fervour/alcohol. And with amazing books like those on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist around this year, it’s a shame to whizz through them, only to have precisely nobody to discuss that unexpected twist with when you’re finished.
Already concerned that sometimes enjoying Grand Designs makes me middle aged enough already, I’ve been repressing my desire to set up a twee little reading group. But earlier this year, I decided I’d forget the haterz and have a go at hosting something. Here’s what I learnt.
Choose guests who like reading
It’s tempting to select attendees solely on the basis that they’ll project the arty and cool image you’re going for in the Instagram version of the night (you might as well make book club into another extension of your personal brand). But don’t confuse quirky earrings and a robust approach to eBay shopping for bookishness. Instead, count in the friend you rang up the moment you finished Gone Girl. Or your pal who talks over Game of Thrones, pointing out the vast insufficiencies of the TV show in comparison with the book. Now is their time to shine.
Don’t MAKE your friends make friends
Book club will probably be one of those horrifying experiences that involves you having to mix different groups of mates. Resist going into friend-maker overdrive, shunting people towards each other while reciting a list of their mutual interests at top speed. RELAX. Announce each guest by name when they first arrive like one of those people at aristocratic balls, then bustle off in search of wine, allowing them to divulge any further introductory details.
Don’t pre-lash book club
It’s understandable if you find yourself wanting to knock back a few glasses of booze to stave off any social anxiety before the guests arrive. Hell, as someone who frequently greets invitees by cuddling them and slurring ‘I’m so nervous’ into their ear, I fully support your right to socially lubricate with whatever bottle of Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference you’ve set aside for the evening.
But it’s worth remembering that unless you’ve bribed a former University Challenge team to come along, people are going to feel a bit awkward about suddenly launching into intellectual discussion. They’ll be looking to you for leadership, so make sure you’re not too prematurely pissed to provide it. If it’s already gone past this point, don’t panic - just ask everyone to bring one question for discussion along with them. That way, you can go around considering people’s points in turn, as if you’re part of some sort of Scandinavian parliamentary debate.
Equally, though, don’t feel like you have to abstain from alcohol all night. Keen not to start shouting at people by 10pm about imaginary misogynist undertones in the novel that ‘really affected me’, I resolved to not drink much at all. This was a mistake, and meant that I was still banging on about literary tropes well after everyone else had abandoned the discussion in favour of playing a game throwing grapes into one another’s mouths.
Set the tone with snacks
If you’re really paranoid that people will think your book club is middle aged, subvert their expectations via the snack selection. Steer clear of buying anything that bears even the slightest resemblance to a yoghurt covered banana chip, and rejoice in the fact that offering cheap and nasty alcohol (think vodka with a range of poorly-matched mixers, and wine bought for under a fiver) is actually beneficial to your image in this situation.
Read something short but meaningful
Children of mothers with book clubs will be familiar with the well-worn dad ‘joke’: ‘They call it a book club, but it doesn’t sound like they do much talking about books!’ Make sure no one in your circle comes out with anything equally emetic by picking a tome that’s short enough for everyone to get through (and form eloquent opinions about) before the night.
When choosing, bear in mind that the aim is to have fun with your friends, rather than feel like a sallow skinned seventeen-year-old trying to speed read your way through the whole of E M Forster before your Oxbridge interview. And consider letting people take turns to pick if the whole thing takes off. Voting for a title via a Facebook group is only marginally less frustrating than Netflix displaying an error message on a Sunday evening, and possibly the least effective way of fostering goodwill between guests in the run up to the event.
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Illustration: Marina Esmeraldo
At work? With your gran?
You might want to think about the fact you're about to read something that wouldn't exactly get a PG rating