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I recently enjoyed a night of sophistication with a few friends. It was a Thursday evening, and we sat chatting as the sun slipped behind the Colorado front range. We talked about life and death, love and loss, joy and regret. For hours, we discussed our opinions on characters, scenes and themes. While this might sound like torture to some, we loved it. This was book club, and we were discussing C.S. Lewis’ classic, Till We Have Faces.
Several months ago, I set out to get friends together regularly to read and discuss the great books. I've always enjoyed reading, but often find classic literature ends up low on my list of priorities. Through the ebb and flow of life, I rarely read what many consider some of the greatest books ever written. So I started a book club. To my surprise, many of my friends shared a desire to read and discuss the classics. With very little effort, I now have a standing monthly date with erudition, courtesy of some friends and a handful of the most brilliant men and women to ever put pen to paper.
Here’s how you can start your own reading group:
1. Create a Facebook Group called “Interested in a Reading Group?” Explain you’d like to start a group that will meet once a month and discuss great literature. Then invite anybody you think might be interested. I initially invited about 30 people. Some were interested, some were non-committal and others weren't interested at all. The goal is to get about 10-15 people at your discussions. More than 15 and it becomes hard to give everyone a chance to share.
2. Find a time and place everyone can meet. In your initial meeting, cast your vision for the group. In our first meeting, I cast the vision for:
*Facilitated discussions (not teachings) on good questions.
*Reading one book a month and meeting once a month.
*Having a goal to discuss and fellowship around books and their themes, not try to find the “correct interpretation."
*Reading books that are both literary classics and generally fun to read.
3. Use online tools to determine which books to read. I think the group should take ownership of which books we read. However, it is wise to initially avoid books that are long and tedious (like some of the classic Russian novels). I’m also interested in books that will provide great discussions. I don’t want everyone to come to the discussion having hated it.
*The Greatest Books is a helpful compilation of many book lists. They’ve combined several lists of the best books and combined them into one. It’s helpful to pull suggestions from sites like this one.
*Once you have several suggestions, create a survey with an online service like SurveyMonkey.com. Then let people vote on what books they'd like to read. The top three to four books are the selections for the first several months. After that, I recommend gathering new suggestions and taking another vote.
5. Find cheap copies of the books you are reading. The great thing about many of the classics is there are lots of cheap copies floating around. I find books at used bookstores, thrift stores and even online. I regularly use a website called Paperback Swap to find cheap copies. Libraries are usually well-stocked with the classics as well. Some in our group are listening to books through local libraries or websites like audible.com.
6. Facilitate engaging discussions. The facilitator should be prepared to talk a little about the background of the book and author. They should also have lots of questions ready. Ask what people thought about interesting scenes, dialogues and themes. Ask about the characters and descriptions people liked the most and the least. Toward the end of the discussion, ask people to rate the book on a scale of 1 to 10. It’s interesting when half the group loved a book and others hated it.
I got the idea to start a reading group from Book Lover’s Guide to Great Reading by Terry Glaspey. He wrote, “Discussing books with others helps you cement themes in your mind, to garner new insights and to share with others the pleasure derived from a truly memorable book.” Terry’s book is a great resource if you are interested in starting a reading group of your own. I always enjoy our discussions and look forward to the next one.
If you’re part of a book club, which books have you enjoyed discussing the most?
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Thanks for sharing this with us, Andrew. It’s good incentive for me, and I’m guessing I’m not alone in that. I used to be an avid reader, and I hate that I now have to preface that description with a “used to be.” I still read quite a bit, but as the post-college years have crept by and the full-time job and assorted ministries have expanded to fill the time, I’ve let my time spent in books grow less, and fewer of those books are classic, thought-provoking writings. I’m not okay with that. It’s far too easy to let time slip by without exercising the mind by serious thought about big questions, and as you’ve pointed out, quality literature is a great way to spur thought and conversation.
A reading group would give me and my friends the extra incentive to actually get through some books we might otherwise not get around to tackling. Even if it’s just a few friends reading a few books over the summer, it’s a start! Maybe we can even start with “Till We Have Faces” – it’s a favorite of mine but I haven’t read it in years – or the C.S. Lewis collection "God in the Dock." Others that come to mind that I’d love to read and discuss are Alan Paton’s “Cry, The Beloved Country” and Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.”
This is another great, encouraging post, Andrew!
I agree with She Who Reads that busy schedules can encroach on the priority of reading.
My friend and I began our reading club six years ago with a different plan than the one Andrew listed. We usually discuss a few chapters a week (two or sometimes three books a year). It's remained only the two of us by design. While we were more like acquaintances when we began, we have become very close friends and prayer partners. I love how challenging, and sometimes convicting books can help "iron sharpen iron". One classic I really enjoyed discussing, a few years ago, was "The Four Loves". This week, my friend and I finished discussing a recommended book on prayer titled "Unrelenting Prayer. While it wasn't one of the best books I've read, it was still helpful.
Only reading a few chapters a week for our "club" has allowed each of us to still read other books at the same time. I love reading, and I read several genres. However, some of the books I read are not ones that would interest my friend- for instance, Peter T. O'Brien's commentary on the book of Ephesians (I used it as I taught a study on Ephesians this semester), or John Grisham's books.
I just started attending a book club in May, reading and discussing Emma by Jane Austen. Next up is The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, which we'll be reading all summer long (after all, it is 1,000 pages!) I really enjoy it, and I feel like I'm finally getting back into one of my passions. Although I read several books/month, I've read very few classics since my English Literature major college days (11-14 years ago). I wonder why I didn't find a local book club sooner!
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