How to fix the five most common reading group problems

1. What can we do about members who don’t read the book?

First, make it clear to all applicants that your club is for readers only. But if someone doesn’t find time to finish a given selection–every book dubber with a life will get caught short once in a while–she shouldn’t be read the riot act. Instead, encourage members to come clean, remain silent while others talk, and ultimately answer this question: Did the discussion you just heard make you want to read (or skip) the book (and why)? Repeat non-reading offenders are a bigger problem. If you keep the conversation focused on the material, the non-readers will eventually get bored and leave on their own.

2. How do we keep people from hijacking the conversation?

Appoint a moderator for each discussion to make sure every member gets her say. This leadership task can fall on the host or on the person who chose the book–it doesn’t matter, as long as she takes her role seriously. One measure of a good group is how well it brings participants into the discussion.

3. How do we stop arguing over which books to read?

Groups must go through a honeymoon period, because this problem usually doesn’t arise until the novelty is gone and differences emerge. Build consensus early about the kind of books your group plans to read. Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction, or both? Classics or contemporary works? Books that don’t exceed 400 pages? Majority rules! Set aside one meeting to create a list or at least a theme for the coming year. Advocates for a particular book should do some research to support the choice and come prepared to make a sales pitch.

4. How do we avoid talking about our own problems?

Maybe you don’t. Fellowship is part of what makes a club thrive. Just make sure you organize your meeting so that nonbook business happens either at the front end as members arrive or after the book discussion. If someone starts sending things off the rails on a regular basis, don’t wait until eyes start to roll. Be gentle: Interrupt, saying “I think we’re getting off track here.”

5. How do we maintain a lively discussion but prevent hurt feelings?

There’s no insurance policy against the unintended offense, especially if the topic is religion or politics. But you can agree to disagree without getting personal. The member who advocated reading a particular book should not be so invested that she gets hurt if her choice is criticized. At the same time, someone who says “I hated this book” should be prepared to explain why. Sometimes that’s a lazy way of saying “I don’t get what this is about.” The best book dubs aren’t about handing down judgments–thumbs-up or thumbs-down. It’s the exchange of ideas that makes them vital.