How to Start a Book Club

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Photo by Susan Wasinger

Gathering to discuss books and hobnob with authors is easier than ever as city officials across the country invite residents to read. From northern California and Seattle to Chicago and upstate New York, citywide book clubs are unearthing literary gems and creating communities among strangers. The phenomenon, which has helped novels scale bestseller lists, started in 1997 when a California reporter for The Contra Costa Times brought Oprah Winfrey’s book club concept to subscribers. Two years later Nancy Pearl, executive director of the Washington State Center for the Book, initiated If All Seattle Read the Same Book, a citywide program that included book discussions and author interviews. The book club programs have since been duplicated across the country in different forms and expanded in some cities to include participation by radio stations and television networks. Bookstores and libraries play an integral role.

“Discussion is a way of broadening and deepening a person’s involvement in what he/she is reading,” explains Pearl, who selects books that readers might not otherwise pick up. Lynn Carey, the staff writer who spearheaded the Contra Costa Times Book Club, does the same. “I want to unearth some treasures,” she says.

Books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry have been selected for citywide book clubs and–without exception–the number of books sold or borrowed for participation has surpassed expectation. “The community loved the concept. No sooner had we finished one, and we were getting questions about who the next author would be,” says Pearl. “We hit a chord.”

In addition to creating a sense of community among readers, literature provides material for debate of ongoing societal issues, which was one reason why Joe Flaherty, executive director and founder of Writers & Books in Rochester, New York, selected A Lesson Before Dying, a book about racism and the death penalty by Ernest J. Gaines, as the city’s first book club selection in 2001. “We hoped that the book clubs would serve as a vehicle for community building,” says Flaherty. “We wanted this to be a multigenerational project that would create an opportunity through reading for people to meet … to talk about issues.” For three days, the literary center hosted a citywide debate on the death penalty in addition to several book discussions. Based on the program’s success, Flaherty plans to continue it in 2002 and may add a children’s book to the venue.

Lynn Carey, who selects books every six weeks for The Contra Costa Times, says her selections have never been made into movies, are not on the Oprah list, and do not have reader’s guides. “It’s like cheating,” Carey explains. “I don’t want someone telling me what to think!”