Rules of engagement 

How to give your book club a fighting chance

Let's be honest: You hear "book club" and you think of several middle-aged ladies politely discussing the merits of Pride and Prejudice. This stereotype has thrived despite the rise of book clubs among all demographics, including hipsters who delight in the nerdiness of literacy. "Book club" is like saying "music"—it can be anything you want it to be, if you know how to navigate the pitfalls.

There's this joke about book clubs where you say "the first rule of book club is you never talk about book club," as if a benign gathering of bookworms had any resemblance to the underground violence of Fight Club. But, while there's no cold-cocking in book club (unless that's your book club's thing), being a part of one requires a little forethought. In the absence of Brad Pitt, here are five things to think about for getting your club to run smoothly.

Choose your herd wisely

The chemistry of your book club members is essential. Your safest bet is to invite your closest friends who likely share your taste and humor. If you're a little more adventurous, try inviting a diverse group of acquaintances from different age groups and from different social circles. For the introvert, two-person book clubs conducted over coffee are totally acceptable.

Also, the idea that book club is just a women's activity is silly and antiquated. It turns out boys can read, too! All-men's book clubs are becoming more popular these days, and mixed gender clubs are perfect for people with close friends of any gender.

Pick people who actually like books. Once you get someone who's close-minded about reading ("I don't really like historical fiction" or "Memoirs are boring!") you'll find yourself more limited than you were before you had a book club. If a book club goes sour because the chemistry sucks, you're headed for a book club divorce. Avoid the drama before it begins.

Teen vampire a no-no

We will try not to judge your love for Twilight books, but let's think about this. How much deep conversation can you get out of a plotline involving a love triangle between a girl, a vampire and a werewolf? What sort of revelatory debate will emerge from reading Undead and Unwed, the story of a shopholic vampire? Find something that will elicit rich discussion. That said, genre book clubs can be rewarding. One book club in Helena reads only mysteries, but it's opened the members up to an array of obscure titles from around the world.

  • illustration by Kou Moua

If you're looking to expand your scope of books, try for a diverse lineup of titles that jumps between non-fiction and fiction, heavy and light. Read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a non-fiction story about a poor black woman whose cells are one of the most important tools in medicine. Follow that with a mystery by Sarah Waters, a western like Lonesome Dove, a controversial read like Salman Rushdie's The Santanic Verses or Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion. And then, hell, try Pride and Prejudice. There's a reason it's a classic.

No babies, no shop talk

Leann Ogilvie, a nurse at St. Patrick Hospital, has a book club that has some hardcore rules. The 10-person club has been together for a decade and consists of five St. Pat's employees and five with various backgrounds. The club keeps track of its books on an Excel spreadsheet and rates them on a scale from 1 to 5. If you miss too many meetings, you're kicked out.

One of the biggest rules is no shop talk—a definite pitfall for any club with members who work together. Book clubs can go off subject quickly. You sit down, and before you know it someone is piping off about their bad day of work and you're all in a heated discussion about the health care system. Ogilvie and her fellow employees avoid that problem by having a pre-book club meeting where they purge themselves of the day's complaints and gossip.

Also worth mentioning: If you're in a book club of people who are all in the process of having babies, watch out. Make a rule that you have to discuss the book for at least an hour before the conversation turns to talk of morning sickness and baby poop. Or ban baby talk all together.

A little distraction will help

Book clubs are a ruse for drinking. Okay, that's not entirely true. But book clubs often are a place to unwind with a glass of wine or a beer. The club might not be a ruse for getting a buzz on, but it's sometimes fun to make your drink of choice a priority. Our calendar editor's book club meets on weekend mornings for mimosas. In Great Falls, an all-men's book club I know of delights in cigars and whiskey (a stereotype in itself that a group of cool ladies might consider co-opting). Another Missoula book club hits up happy hours around town. You can also make it about food. If book club members share hosting responsibilities, you can do a potluck-style appetizer spread. The point is, book club usually happens only once a month, so think about how you can make it feel less like a boring classroom and more like a party.

Down and dirty discussion

You've picked a good book that everyone read and now you're ready to discuss it. A lot of book clubs let conversation flow freely, provided the members are savvy at the art of discussion. Not everyone is. For most popular titles you can find discussion questions online, or even in the back of the book itself. Or come with your own questions to let members consider.

A good book club pick will make you consider philosophical themes. But you have to make the effort. Saying, "I like that part when the dog shows up in the story," will elicit a reply of, "Cool, man! Me, too." Good job, you just killed the conversation.

When you pick a book, be prepared for everyone to hate it. That's okay. If you like it, fight for it. Book club is a place for debate. A verbal sparring match won't injure you, as long as you can all laugh about it later over a beer.

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