The Secret to a Successful Faculty/Staff Book Club

One of my favorite ways to connect with the adult community I’m a part of is to organize a fun book club to read and discuss a few titles  per year. I have done this in both independent schools where I have worked and participation has varied, from just myself and a few others to a packed house, 15-20 participants, requiring us to break into two groups to discuss the book. What’s the key to a successful program? Its  seems to depend on a number of factors. I wonder if those of you who are leading groups at your schools will agree or disagree.

  1. Choosing the right book. Fiction/Non-Fiction. Adult or YA to read what our students are reading? Length. Genre.
  2. BUSY-NESS in the year. ‘Nuff said.
  3. Scheduling–is it a day time or evening discussion?

Excuse me for a moment while I preach to the choir: book clubs by there very nature do not require that everyone love the genre that you are reading. However, I’ve found that some people do have strong preferences re: spending time on fiction when they prefer to read non-fiction, almost exclusively. That seems to be the case for many who are interested in participating in book discussions at Emma.

The large group of readers at my last school thrived on fun fiction (“Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” anyone?,  also “The Paris Wife”, “Loving Frank”, “The Postmistress”, “Unbroken”and “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”, “Little Women” vs. “March” in a Men are from Mars, Women from Venus match-up, to name a few).  We met at a local restaurant, split appetizers and ordered an adult beverage, and either my library colleague or I would start the discussion and have a list of questions/discussion points that we could refer to if there was a lull or if we needed to pull the proverbial car back onto the road. It was great. No one throw anything at me, but I feel like we had a lot more free time to read for pleasure because we were at a day school. Organizing another book club here in this boarding community has been a different creature entirely. Clearly, I’m still learning and working to perfect the formula for success.

I typically propose books a week or two before a school break so that there is more time to read. Because there are evening faculty meetings once a month, so many people coach, and because  everyone has a night of dorm duty or proctored study hall or such, it’s tough, nay impossible, to find a time that works for everyone. That’s just life. I usually go with a Thursday evening discussion somewhere on campus–typically my house or that of my colleague/neighbor who has no children, a working fireplace, and a perpetually clean house. I bring dessert and wine. We typically get the same 4-6 regulars who participate.  Once we finish our discussion, I open up “next read nominations” from the group. That’s how it goes for the rest of the year. Maybe that’s okay? I have a hard time admitting that something can’t be improved, so I’m examining the challenges and trying to do better, to attract a more diverse group, etc.

First, there’s choosing the right book. I usually start the year out by proposing a few titles that I would like to read and discuss, then letting people vote. I try to offer a number of different titles, for example, this year we started with “A Man Called Ove”, “Fun Home”, “A Tale for the Time Being”, and “Blood in the Water: the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy”, a new release that was nominated for the National Book Award, is timely politically in its dealing with prison reform, human rights violations, and fake news, and it also focuses on a horrific event that took place just a few hours from our campus. Like I said, this community likes its non-fiction, so Attica it was (though “Ove” was a close second). I offered both a lunchtime discussion in a small dining room and an evening discussion to try to get those who weren’t free in the evening. Everything was looking good!

What piece did I miss? First, new releases aren’t available in paperback. CHA-CHING!  The waiting list at the public library was huge. Strangely, our library copy took an inordinately long time to arrive from Amazon. Second, length! The book is 752 pages. A lot of those are notes, but still, it’s a good 600+ pages of text, which is a lot to take on over Thanksgiving break. It was such a small group that we cancelled the evening meeting and went with the lunch time one. I brought recent articles from the New York Times that cover investigations at 54 prisons where prisoners continue to suffer the same abuses that Attica’s prisoners were protesting. We were a small but mighty group and did have a good discussion, but we all agreed that we should alternate between heavy non-fiction like this and lighter novels. Our new format is to alternate. We decided to read “Ove” over our winter break and discuss in late January. I’m not sure how many it will attract, but hopefully more than Attica did.

On a whim, my assistant and I bought some used copies of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” personal essay, based on her 2012 TedX talk (64 pages), and hoped to get an informal group discussion pulled together over lunch in the new year. We threw it out there and said “the first four to respond to this message will get the book delivered to your mailbox today!”. There are 9 people on the waiting list right now! A few admitted that this was the right length for them to read and discuss during the school year. So the desire is there, but not the time. Hmmm…

So, I wonder, do we look for more articles/short stories/essays to read? Do we plan our reads at the end of the year and announce them for faculty to read for pleasure over the summer? {Who will be able to recall details for something they read months before? I surely can’t.} Or do we chalk it up to “it is what it is” and any group coming together to discuss books is a good thing–big or small?

What is working for you at your school? Are there any boarding school success stories that I can learn from? What titles have been especially good to discuss?