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May 27, 2009

Joshua Henkin's Book Club Adventures: The Latest Chapter, April 2009

Posted by carol
Novelist and creative writing professor Joshua Henkin regularly shares behind-the-scenes stories with us about his meetings with reading groups to discuss his novel Matrimony. He often shares popular questions that book club members like to ask him, and this month he turns the tables and reveals a question that he likes to ask groups.

April's Condensed Statistics
Number of Book Groups Visited: 6
Number in Person: 1
Number by Phone: 4
Number by Skype: 1
Number of States Represented: 5 (Connecticut, Virginia, Arizona, Florida, Ohio)
Total Number of Participants, not including author: 70
Total Number of Male Participants, not including
author: 3

A Popular Book Group Question Asked by the Author in April: How do you Choose your Book Group Books?

Usually in this space I write about a question I get asked by book group members, but this month I want to talk about a question of mine. Every time I talk to a book group, I start off by asking the members what books the group has read recently and how the group chose them. The answers are as varied as the book groups themselves, but I've noticed certain trends. Some book groups choose the books as much as a year in advance, while others simply do it one month at a time. Some book groups research the matter exhaustively, while others decide more spontaneously, as everyone is about to leave for the night. In some cases it's done by vote, and in other cases the person who's hosting the next time gets to choose (and that way, if people don't like the book, they know whom to blame, though with any luck the host will be console everyone with plenty of good food and wine).

Although there's no one right way to do it, I've found that the book groups that research the matter more thoroughly and choose their books well in advance end up with a more diverse and interesting selection of books. I also think there's something to be said for letting a different person choose each time. That's because democracy, though it has its benefits, tends to be about compromise over passion. If I were in a book group (I'm not: having now talked to 150 book groups about Matrimony, I can safely say that my life is a book group), I would prefer to have read six books I adored and six books I hated than to have read twelve books that I thought were O.K.. The way to bring this about, it seems to me, is to allow one person each time to decide autocratically what gets read. This way, the members of the book group are far more likely to be exposed to books they wouldn't otherwise have read.

I've found that when this happens people are often surprised and they end up liking a book they hadn't expected to, and even if they don't like it, most of them are glad to have read it, not least because a discussion about a book the members don't like can be at least as interesting as, sometimes more interesting than, a discussion about a book the members do like. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with Three Cups of Tea, Eat, Pray, Love and The Memory Keeper's Daughter (I don't know; I haven't read them), but every book club in America is discussing these books. Better, as I've suggested elsewhere, to have a rule that the book club will discuss only those books that at least half of the members have never heard of. That way, people get exposed to much more.

What I would encourage book clubs to do is what I encourage my writing students to do: take risks. Reading, like writing, is about getting outside of your own experience, and what better way to do that than to read a book you were dubious of and to find that it transports you.

---Joshua Henkin

Previous Posts by Joshua Henkin:
Book Club Adventures, March 2009
Book Club Adventures, March 2009 Part II
Book Club Adventures, February 2009
Book Club Adventures, February 2009 Part II
Book Club Adventures, January 2009
Book Club Adventures, January 2009 Part II