How to keep a book club going for 40 years

Back in November, my friend Amanda texted me to say I should ask her mother-in-law, Christina Bates, to be a BOOK PERSON. “She reads depressing books, though,” she said, which convinced me. Maybe she would recommend something other than A Little Life!

I emailed Christina the survey, and we talked over email about book clubs. Chris is a current member of four book clubs (until recently, it was five), one of which has been going for over forty years. She founded it when she was a new mother in Durham, NC, who was tired of talking about baby poop on the playground all the time, so she phoned up women from work who were also new mothers to invite them to join a book club. And they’re still meeting now, with their kids all grown up— even taking two retreats each year, to hang out at the beach and read a book together. The dreamy idea of going on a reading vacation with my friends will sustain me through the rest of COVID.

I phoned her this week to ask what the secret is to a long-lasting book club, and here are her tips:

  • Take the books seriously. For the first ten years (!) of Chris’s book club, they stayed focused on the books. The social aspect was secondary; everyone was expected to read the books, come prepared to talk about them, and stay on topic.

  • Have a facilitator. Someone needs to share reminders about what book is next and when you’re gathering, and keep everyone on track. It’s also helpful to have someone in charge of the discussion (the loose rule at my book club is that whoever nominates the book leads the discussion).

  • Stick to a regular date. Chris’s book club meets on the third Monday of each month; mine is usually on the last Tuesday. Very key for anyone who tends to overschedule themselves!

  • Choose your books in advance. Knowing what you’re reading in the months ahead helps with the momentum of the group, and it means you have time to request your library copy or drop by the bookstore in advance. The book club I’m in picks all our books for the year ahead in January; Chris’s club usually picks the next four months of books at a time.

Also, if you are feeling lonely and worn out, I really recommend making a new friend and calling them to talk about book clubs. Thank you Chris!

Where are you from, and where do you live now?

I was born on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal Zone and grew up on several military bases in the "Zone". But I moved to Durham, North Carolina in 1976 and have been here ever since.

Describe your literary tastes.

Fiction but I also love memoirs, story stories and non-fiction as well. Serious reads usually though COVID has me dipping my toes in breezy reads (not a fan though).

What is your favourite bookstore in the whole wide world?

The Regulator Bookshop.

Where do you read at home?

Usually in bed. I have two fabulously comfy chairs in my "library/office" but my daughter's junk yard dogs have taken those over.

What time of day do you do your best reading?

I start my day reading the news but lately stop reading that almost immediately and pick up something from the bedside table or a stack on the floor. Most of my reading is in bed before I got to sleep.

How many books do you have around the house?

I have hundreds (many of them were my mother's). I have bookshelves in what was meant to be the formal living room, but I use it as an office. There are bookshelves also on either side of the non-working fireplace. And stacks of books in the bedroom.

Do you keep track of what you read?

I do. I started in college. I'm a dinosaur so I started writing on 3x5 index cards. Now I write in a notebook. I rate the books from 1 to 5 (highest) and write a brief synopsis. I'm not always faithful about it though.

What book is next to your bed right now?

House of Correction by Nicci French, Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford, The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, Underland by Robert Macfarlane and the O. Henry Awards: Prize Stories, the Best of 1998 collection.

What was your favourite book as a child?

I read a lot but Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys. Nothing remarkable. I remember the impact of Follow My Leader by James B. Garfield, about a boy blinded by a firecracker and having to make adjustments to find his way as a blind person. Luckily he gets a guide dog and it's their story. Probably not well written but phew, I still remember it.

Who is your favourite author?

Toni Morrison and Beloved is the first author I thought of. I don't love all of Toni Morrison though. Joan Didion too. Especially her essays— not so much her novels. Loved her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking.

Do you have a beloved under-the-radar author who you think more people should read?

A.L. Kennedy. Also Jeannette Winterson.

Have you ever picked up a book expecting to be underwhelmed and found yourself completely knocked flat on your ass by how good it is?

A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines

What is your favourite opening to a book?

"What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask."

Which book do you give most often as a gift?

The Little Snake by AL Kennedy recently. But I also gifted several copies of Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter.

What is the most devastating book that you can think of?

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala. I would recommend it with carefully being mindful of the timing. But it's a book everyone should read, I think.

Has a book ever sparked an obsession with a niche subject, completely outside your usual interests?

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey sparked an interest in nature writing. A quiet contemplative book. Thoughtful and meditative. Loved, loved, loved it.

Reader’s choice:

The inevitable result of asking so many people for reading recommendations is the growing awareness of all the books I haven’t read. I’m not a proponent of the idea that everyone needs to read the same canon to appreciate literature, and I am probably never going to finish Jane Eyre, which I put down in high school and never felt like picking up again. But there are plenty of books that I have been pleasurably anticipating without urgency for a long time. I think this is going to be the year that I read Just Kids by Patti Smith, which I fully expect to love but somehow have just never gotten around to. What’s a book that you’ve been saving for your future self?

If you know a BOOK PERSON, please send them my way so I can pry into their shelves. All preferences welcome! And if you enjoyed this edition of BOOK PERSON, why not subscribe or share it with a pal by clicking these cheery buttons?