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July 7, 2008

What Works/What Doesn't Work

Posted by carol
Last week Pam Cox shared selections read by her nonfiction book club and talked about how she formed a spin-off group for fiction titles. Today she has a tip for making sure your book club stays up to par --- by regularly having members offer their thoughts on what works and what doesn't. Here is how the members of the "Ladies of Pleasure, Reading" book club do it.

Which came first: your friendships with your fellow book club members or your book club? Either way, these relationships are somewhat unique. They are built and nurtured around reading and sharing with everyone how a book has affected us --- sometimes against the majority opinion!

When I founded our group in 2000, we were a mix of women who were close friends, some casual friends, some yet-to-be-discovered friends. Since then we have "lost" only four members and "found" four new members --- we total 10 on a regular basis. As with any group who loves and respects each other, it can be very daunting to broach a subject that will possibly be taken negatively by some people. Feeling responsible to a fault, I want everyone to have a terrific time at our meetings, go home having learned something profound, tell everyone they know that our group tops any other in the universe, and having enjoyed the most luscious refreshments available.

As others with the Responsibility Gene can attest, this makes it really hard for me to say things like, "__, please stop talking so someone else can get a word in!" Or, "We are so far off track that I've forgotten which book we read! Please steer us back!" Or, "___ and ___ , maybe you can have lunch tomorrow and stop talking aside while we're discussing the book!" Or, "Late again?" You get the picture. I assumed if it's hard for me to speak up to people near and dear to me, it probably is hard for someone else. Likewise, I would often re-play a meeting as I fell asleep and wonder why I didn't tell __ how much I loved her interpretation of a passage, or thank ___ for changing my whole outlook on a book, or acknowledge ___ for bravely telling us all why she's the only one who loved/hated that book. I felt like there was an opportunity for us to communicate, aside from our book discussions, and build stronger friendships and a stronger group at the same time.

I resisted pointing the conversation in any one direction --- the question "what's wrong?" doesn't leave much room for improvement. So, I started the practice of, every six months, going around the room and asking, "What works about our book club?" Then, "What doesn't work about our book club?" Members are told in the reminder e-mail (sent the week before the meeting) that we're going to update our What Works/Doesn't Work list and they can come up with as many or as few items as they want. It takes only about 10 minutes, and everyone is heard in the context of improving our get-togethers for all of us. I write these suggestions down and then type them up to hand out at our next meeting. When an issue pops up that the group has agreed doesn't work, someone will remind us that we're "not working" for everyone. Gratitude and appreciation also shows up when we see what works for us that we may have been taking for granted.

Here are a few examples from our latest Works/Doesn't Work conversation:

- New ideas and new people (We just welcomed three new members.)
- Being "held to task" to read new things we would not otherwise have read (the main joy of a book club!)
- Length of time between meetings (4-6 weeks)
- In-depth discussions of our books (We were skimming or focusing too much on one aspect of the books.)
- How we pick our next book (We rotate who chooses the book each month --- rotation is alphabetical by last name --- which ensures that everyone gets a say.)
- Meeting on Sunday evenings (see below)

- Not staying on track (We get frequent, friendly reminders when we wander off.)
- Books that are too long and take too much time to read (This was a surprise to some of us --- we're more aware now of peoples' other commitments and the time of year when choosing what book to read.)
- Fixing a pot-luck meal every time (We had gotten to be a dinner club that happened to read books --- not what we wanted. We have occasional meals now.)
- Meeting on Sunday evenings (I never said we solved everything! Now we vary meeting days more.)

I have asked our members over the years how What Works/Doesn't Work works for them and, without exception, It Works!

---Pam Cox