Things I’ve Learned at Book Club
Last year, in the hopes of reading more, I started a book club.
I thought the club might make a good companion piece to the Violet Hour, a bimonthly queer reading series I’ve produced since 2014. While the Violet Hour regularly brings out a community of booklovers to discover and connect with new authors and their work, there was one thing I have always felt was missing—a chance for the audience members themselves to connect.
Well, they can do that now at the Violet Hour Book Club. Every six weeks we gather at Never Apart to discuss classic and contemporary work by LGBTQ authors. The club has proved to be all that I hoped it would be, with new faces showing up each time and healthy and lively discussions expanding the ways we look at literature.
If you’re thinking of starting your own book club, I can’t recommend it enough. And if you do, here are some things I wish I had known at the outset.
Don’t be afraid to invite people you don’t know
Up until this time, all the book clubs I’d ever been a part of were in friends’ kitchens. They were always fun affairs, with lots of wine or coffee or food, but a lot of the time we’d lapse into personal conversations about work or the news or something else entirely. The book felt secondary to getting together. There is something very different, however, about getting into a room full or strangers who have one main thing in common—the book you’ve just read. It forces you to get to know one another, over time, in a whole new way.
Don’t make it too complicated
For our first event I asked Man Booker Prize-winner Alan Hollinghurst to appear via Skype. I don’t know why I asked him. I suppose, since I was hosting this at an art gallery, I felt the need to do something big for the launch. Surprisingly, Hollinghurst said yes! I was so nervous to make sure that everything went right, testing the equipment several times and liaising with his team to make sure we had our accounts and time zones correct. The one thing I didn’t realize, however, was that Daylight Savings Time takes place a different weekend in Canada than it does in the UK, and our event with Hollinghurst took place in the one week between the two when the UK was six hours ahead and not five. We missed him by an hour. Hollinghurst was gracious about it, but I was mortified. I learned, though, that I didn’t need to impress people with big names or advanced tech. The group had more than enough fun on our own.
It’s okay if people don’t talk
At first, I wanted to make sure that everyone had an opportunity to contribute. As always, some people have more to say than others, and a good moderator knows when someone is taking over the conversation. At the beginning, I wanted to make sure that those who didn’t speak up felt comfortable enough to share their thoughts with the group. But I made the mistake of calling upon a woman who had remained quiet most of the morning. By calling upon her, I put her on the spot and forced her to say something in a room full of people she didn’t know. She never came back after that, and I don’t blame her. I wish I had instead asked if anyone who hadn’t yet spoken up had something to share, rather than zeroing in on her. But some people, I realize, just come to listen.
Always challenge your readers
If you’re going to rely on the group to collectively pick the books you read, you might not get very far. After our first meeting, I asked everyone about the books they wanted to read. I got a lot of familiar titles. If we had stuck to them, we’d be reading a selection of similar work. Although the Violet Hour Book Club is open to everyone, the majority of our members so far are cis white males. In order to make sure we are not just reading the books that reflect our reality, I push us in various directions. The goal is to read books by every letter in the LGBTQ acronym. I also want us to read poetry and graphic novels, as well as fiction and non-fiction. Works in translation, works by Canadian immigrants, works from other countries, other eras. And so far, the books we’ve read have resonated.
It’s okay if people don’t like the book
One of the books that our group wanted to read was by a very prominent author (I won’t say who) whose work is an essential part of the literary canon. Surprisingly, in the end, few people came out to discuss his book (we ended up being six, down from 22), and those who did come either did not like the book very much or abandoned it halfway through. Still, even though the selection wasn’t a hit, it prompted one of the most interesting discussions our group has ever had, taking us down the road to discuss subjects like age of consent, coming out, gay male sexuality and our own #metoo moments. We ended up in a very different place than we started, and that I think is the point of a book club.
You can join the Violet Hour Book Club here.