Cathleen on the Secrets to a Happy Book Club

The following is a guest post by Creative Director Cathleen Ouderkirk on how to have a long-lasting book club. 

My book club is 26 years old…and in book-club years that’s like 88.

If you’re frustrated with book clubs that keep dying out, I’ve got advice for you, as I’m a founding member of one of the happiest book clubs on earth. We’ve stumbled on to the secret of longevity . . . the Book Club Fountain of Youth. [Big aside here: I have to admit it’s not been the same six members all 26 years. There are three core members, including yours truly, who’ve been in it since book number one in 1986 (Tama Janowitz, Slaves of New York— fun, readable, but that’s about it). The other three positions have had long occupations, like slow, flat tides that come in, stay for five to ten years, then recede.]

We’re an easy-going group and I think that’s one of the big secrets. No one cares too much. We all adore our book club and we look forward to it, but no one’s raging to share their theory on the symbolism of a title, or make a revisionist argument about how Crime and Punishment is actually a comedy. We prize great characters and involving stories. We explore what we liked and didn’t like, share opinions on odd choices the author made, talk about the ending, weigh believability, admit what moved us. But no one’s out to impress. The discussion stakes are low and that makes for no pressure and high enjoyment.

Jacket, Crime and Punishment

The Ladies Book Club does not mine 19th century Russian fiction for comedic gold.

We’ve never had a fight (although there’ve been some beneath-the-surface annoyance — mostly at book choices) and we’ve never taken a break (well, except for Doris Lessing and The Golden Notebook, which almost did us in . . . we didn’t meet for close to eight months. And actually Henry James’ The Golden Bowl was a bear as well. Guess gold’s not our currency.)

So if we’re so happy, why does anyone ever leave the “Ladies Book Club,” as we have tediously named it? (As I said, we don’t care enough to bother giving it a creative name.) Only one reason for exiting the book club — distance. If you move too far to make it into the city for meetings (like St. Louis, Seattle, or Hanover, NH) you’re out. I suppose we could set up Skyping or phone conferencing, but that would be against our fundamental principle of low maintenance.

Apparently most book clubs eventually break up. This is a difficult fact for the NYC Ladies Book Club to conceive — that would be too much trouble! Apparently book clubs disintegrate from three main causes: a.) disagreement about what to read; b.) bossy, stubborn, or annoying members; c.) inability to schedule meetings.

So to help anyone start (and keep) a book club, here are some additional cardinal rules:

  1. Have an agreement in place as to what kind of books you want to read. For us, I’d call it Middle-Brow Literary. We won’t generally do light fiction (i.e. Colm’s Brooklyn) — there’s nothing to discuss. We also won’t do Ulysses— WAY too much trouble. Reading is supposed to be enjoyable.
  2. Have great desserts and strong tea.
  3. Leave sufficient time for Idle Chat.
  4. Take turns choosing books. At each meeting a different member presents two to three books and we vote. Just accept what’s picked. Don’t resist, debate, or agonize.
  5. Schedule the next meeting at the current meeting. I can’t overstate how critical this mundane task is to the longevity of your book club.
  6. If the club gets below five members, quickly and carefully select a new member. This is the one thing we DO care about — the new member must have the right mix of intelligence and indifference.

How long will our book club last? We’re in our 50’s now. I’d say we’ve got a good chance at another twenty years. Who knows? Maybe we’ll pass it on to our daughters.

A list of my favorite books out of the 120+ books we’ve read. Next blog, some observations about a few of these great novels:
The Handmaid’s Tale, Time’s Arrow, Middlemarch, A Visit from the Goon Squad, The Good Soldier, Independence Day, The Corrections, The Tie That Binds, The Remains of the Day, The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square, Ironweed, 100 Years of Solitude, LolitaWhite Palace, Anywhere But Here, Anna Karenina, The Way We Live Now, Brideshead Revisited, The House of Mirth, The Passion, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Native Son, and Revolutionary Road.

Cathleen Ouderkirk is Creative Director here at AMACOM. With us for over 20 years, she started as a copywriter and then moved to producing catalogs, sales sheets, and direct mail pieces, before moving on to design. After secretly designing on her own book jackets and showing them to the acquisition editors, her work evolved into overseeing all of our jackets today. Visit our website for freelance design inquiries.


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