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March 3, 2008

Book Discussion Groups at the Office If You Start One, They Will Come

Posted by carol
Avideh Bashirrad is a "book person" whose recommendations I trust. She knows my taste and when she hand selects me a book from her list at Random House, I know I am going to enjoy it. We all know people like this. One day when we were having lunch she told me about a book group that she had started over at Hearst publications. Knowing that this was an idea that could translate for many of our readers I asked her to do a column about it. And yes, in full disclosure this really struck a chord with me since I never was one for the company sports team or yoga classes (memories of being picked last in gym die hard), but I would have loved a way to share something outside of "work" with my office mates. ---Carol Fitzgerald

I was chatting with some friends about the tendency in us all to covet the perks of others. For instance in book publishing we sometimes take for granted the bountiful supply of free books within our reach. We sigh with envy when friends who work in other industries, fashion for instance, get perks like free accessories. But the consensus among my friends was that having unlimited access to books was the ultimate score. They were especially enamored of the notion that I read for work, and sit in meetings to discuss books with colleagues.

Well, I do a whole lot more than that, but it occurred to me that my friends were describing a book group. If that's what they envy for the workplace, why not start one? Companies offer activities like softball teams and yoga Tuesdays, and they may as well add book discussion to the mix.

I decided it would be an interesting experiment to take outside of my own company so I approached the mega magazine publisher Hearst, producer of popular magazines like Cosmo, O, and Good Housekeeping. Their gorgeous new building towers just a block from the Random House offices where I work. When I contacted their Human Resources department they loved the concept. We met a few times to discuss the process and format and dates. Soon after, they sent a company wide email inviting all Hearst employees to join the group. Within a week 50 people had signed up and we were on our way.

I picked a debut novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings for our first discussion. Kaui's novel The Descendants was one of my favorite reads that summer. It's a funny and dramatic story about an unconventional family trying to stick together while they cope with tragedy. (I've always had a soft spot for dysfunctional family stories and this fit the mold in a way that's totally bold and fresh).

I was a little nervous about the first meeting (what if nobody shows up?) but we got quite a crowd and a range of personalities...some were recent college grads and others were Hearst veterans...we even had some men (shocking). We split into small groups for the discussion and I learned some people adored this book and others were lukewarm on it. Everyone was completely engaged though, and our time together flew. I forgot I was working. After all, I had orchestrated this event in part to introduce our author to new readers.

A few months later we met again to discuss our second book, Gardens of Water by Alan Drew. It's a haunting story about two families --- one American and the other Kurdish--- whose lives are forever changed in the aftermath of an earthquake. In an interesting twist we had almost an entirely new group of attendees. My first thought was that people defected after our first meeting. But my contacts at Hearst assured me the turnover was a result of choosing such a different book. Well that makes sense...people come if it appeals to them and the upside is that we get to meet new readers with fresh perspectives each time.

I think a company sponsored book group can be a beautiful thing --- a meaningful way for colleagues to interact. Plus it's the kind of perk that makes people feel good about where they work.

At the end of both sessions I asked our members to answer a few questions, like what they liked and didn't like and what we could do it differently next time. Why, I wonder, didn't I do that with my own book group 8 years ago to prevented our disbandment? Wait, I remember...because we were all friends and nobody wanted to play the role of the bossy mom to keep conversations on track, prepare an agenda and a process for selecting books. That's the beauty of letting someone else organize for you. If you're feeling like your company is low on perks, or even if you just like the idea of being in a book group, I think you should suggest it or take the initiative to start one at work. From my experience if you build it, they will come.