The only requirement for a good book club is that you enjoy it. But especially in these difficult political times, some avid readers are increasingly dissatisfied with book clubs that don’t offer the kind of robust discussions that can spring from diversity.
Robin Gaines, author of Invincible Summers, lives in a northern Michigan community, and has been a member of her small club of eight members for 15 years. “We’re a diverse group, not by race, but by political persuasions, socio-economic, age, children/no children, religious differences, and careers,” said Gaines, who is white and lives in a mostly-white community. “We try to open our eyes and ears to other cultures through reading, and I realize sometimes that’s not enough.”
5 Steps for Diversity Success
Here are five steps that might help you get closer to the diverse group you crave:
1. Combine with another homogeneous club. Inviting one or two people to integrate your group is like inviting a stranger to your Thanksgiving dinner. You may not realize it, but you are clubby. You have inside jokes. You have blabbermouths that everyone tolerates and wallflowers who might seem stand-offish. Your group has a real culture that outsiders may find intimidating. The solution? Join forces with another homogeneous book club and forge a whole new culture. It doesn’t have to be a forever match: You can meet together only a few times a year, or just to read a certain book or on a special day.
2. You want new members, not cultural interpreters. Don’t invite black women to your group because you’re reading Toni Morrison, or Appalachian women to translate mountain poetry or Indian women to help you navigate Jhumpa Lahiri. People should be invited because they love to read books and love to talk about them, not to answer your club’s ethnic questions. (The Detroit Study Club was established in 1898 to read the poetry of Robert Browning. Comprised of African American women, it still meets, although its topics have broadened.) That being said, it’s hard to attract diverse membership if you’re not willing also to diversify your reading list.
3. Change your meeting place. Private homes can be as intimidating as they are inviting. If only for a season, change to a more public, accessible location, and post a public invitation for others to join. While you’re talking, encourage others to pull up a chair. For that purpose, libraries, coffeehouses, college campuses and even museum cafes can make great locations. But be careful to pick a place where you will find the diversity you’re seeking.
4. Deploy technology. Tava Scott was frustrated with her Detroit-area book group because the members only wanted to socialize and drink wine. That’s when the African American business owner decided to try the online app, Meetup. About 23 ethnically diverse people from all walks of life showed up at the initial meeting, and they are now the core of “My Sisters Book Club.” Additionally, they created a Facebook page where they post the book they’ve chosen, the date and location of their meetings and some comments. They now have more than 1,500 followers (no, they don’t all show up to the club meeting!). Virtual groups are also possible with video chat apps like Google Hangouts or Skype.
5. Be intent and patient. When asked about the key elements to a successful book club, Gaines believes that “it starts with a love of reading and the belief that different opinions equal good conversation.” The trust to share those different opinions — especially with people different from yourself — often has to build over time.
Neena Pottoore is the executive director of the Wheeling/Prospect Heights Chamber of Commerce in Illinois. She once belonged to a book club that could weather dissension because they had mutual respect. “Once after reading Three Cups of Tea, I got into a heated discussion about the invasion of Iraq,” said Pottoore, who is a liberal Indian-American. “The steady book clubbers were used to me, but one of the new, conservative members never came back.” Pottoore’s current book club of white and Indian women has come together slowly and organically. “We are experimenting with meeting in restaurants where we be can be freer,” she said.
My final word of advice: Get ready for evolution! Inviting diversity is inviting change — some anticipated, some not. If your club members value diversity, then they will value the changes that come with it. Book discussions may become as uncomfortable as they are enlightening. Conversation styles, book choices and meeting locations may morph, depending on who attends and who hosts. Long-time members may fall away as new members join. People may complain that their club is no longer what it used to be.
But that’s the point, isn’t it?
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