How to Choose the BEST Readings for Your Book Club (and yourself)

book clubs lifelong learning Nov 21, 2023
book club burning a book

If you’re reading this, chances are you belong to some kind of discussion group or you lead one, which means that you’re the kind of person who wants to think about things, share ideas, be enriched, use your mind, enjoy meaningful conversations. Your ability to do that depends almost entirely on choosing the right book. Although I teach about preparing for discussions, marking books, looking for themes, asking the 5 types of questions, and leading quality discussions, if you have a low quality reading, none of that can help much. 

The main problem is, that when choosing what to read, most groups follow the democratic line—everyone in the group gets to choose a book, usually determined by a rotating schedule. Sometimes this is improved upon a little by having a member “preview” one month and then “lead” the discussion of the book they’ve chosen. Of course, this is all accomplished by the members on sheer natural ability—most of the time none of the members have had any training or experience in choosing good readings or even in leading book discussions. In fact, they may never have even seen a good book discussion in action. How can anyone be expected to recreate something they’ve never been exposed to? It’s impossible. 

So you wind up with some members being more educated than others, some more articulate and some more natural at book choosing and leading. The result being that members literally have no idea from one month to the next whether or not they are going to be reading anything of quality or how the discussion will go. This uncertainty keeps people from putting their whole heart into the reading, which then affects everything else. When they don’t know that each and every reading chosen for your book club is going to be worth their time, really worth their time, they are less likely to purchase the book or read it well, making successful discussion a gamble. 

I’ll give you an example:

I recently attended a women’s book club consisting of neighbors that had been meeting regularly for several years. Out of 12 women, about half had finished the book for that month, some had started it and a couple had refused to purchase and read the book at all. This made rough-going for good discussion but when they began talking about some of their own personal struggles, the conversation picked up. I didn’t say much during the discussion but when I could tell they were winding down, I asked a question. 

“How do you choose the books you will read?”

One woman answered that everyone had a turn on a rotating schedule.

“Had anyone read this book before it was recommended?” I asked.

“No,” was the answer.

“Then how did you come to choose it?”

It was recommended by a friend.

“Will any of you ever read this book again?” I then asked.

Everyone, even the staunchest defenders of the book, answered “No".

“Really, why not?” I queried, a little surprised by the unanimity of the reply.

One woman’s response explains clearly the difficulties this book club was experiencing, “There aren’t very many books that are worth reading more than once.”

Even though I know many people feel this way, her response still surprised me, especially because I own many books I feel are worth reading multiple times. 

Another woman said, “Yeah, there are only a couple books I’ve ever read twice.”

Then a really fascinating thing happened. The woman sitting next to me, one of the members who had not purchased or read the book for that month said, “I read The Help three times in the last year. We read it for group several months ago and I went right home and read it again. Then I read it a third time.”

“Why did you read it three times in a row?” I asked.

“Because it made me want to be better.”

And that’s the point. What we think we want to read in our book clubs is books that are entertaining. But the books that not only make the book club much higher quality, but also bless the lives of those who attend and make them want to keep reading and attending, is to read something that is ENRICHING. 

Choosing book club books is like choosing the food we eat. We want candy but what we really need, what nourishes us throughout our lives is vegetables. Yet, vegetables can also taste as great as they nourish. So can the right books. They can be both entertaining and enriching. That’s the goal. 

How, then, do we choose? The first place to begin is to remember that although some things in this world are the “best” by my standards and some are the “best” by your standards, some are truly the best by history’s standards. Some music, some books, some art outlasts the popularity of its day. It outlasts its generation and even its century. It is timeless. It speaks to virtually all people of all times and places because it speaks to humankind. 

Now I don’t know about you but I have very little time to spend reading books for my book club. And if I’m going to invest that time, I want it to be worth my while. This doesn’t mean I’d like to cuddle up with Moby Dick tonight but it does mean that there are so many amazing things that book clubs could be reading and discussing but they almost always spend most of their time in easy-to-read modern novels. It’s such a shame because these same people could be spending exactly the same amount of time, or sometimes even less time, reading something that will truly change the way they think or will benefit their lives. Not only do better readings have more meaning, they are so much more fun!

These best books are not just "old books" (although some are), they are readings that: 

  • Contain truth 
  • We can learn from over and over again 
  • Are true to natural consequences 
  • Honor natural law
  • Teach true human nature 
  • Inspire us to be our best

There are three simple rules I follow when choosing books for myself, my children, my book club, my students, or anyone ready to have their reading be enriching, inspiring, and transformative. These rules can guide your choices as well, and you'll be grateful you followed them. 

1) Stick with the original

Several years ago I was doing research on an educational methodology for an assignment in one of my classes. This required me to visit a local private school where I listened to a lecture given to the student body about Christopher Columbus. It was part of their American history studies but it peaked my interest because there was a lot of buzz in the country at the time about public school students “putting Columbus on trial” and finding him guilty of heinous crimes.

As I listened, not only did the speaker say things about Columbus that I had never heard before, but I was fascinated by the fact that he repeatedly referenced Columbus’ journal. By this time I had already faced the fact that the private university I had attended as a young adult had not given me nearly enough exposure to original sources. This speech, though, combined with what I was seeing in the newspapers, helped me understand the importance of going to the source on a whole new level. 

I went home and “Columbus’ journal” on the internet. And there it was! I could read for myself who Columbus was, what he did and most importantly, how he felt about his life and his decisions. I could find out about Columbus from Columbus. It was incredibly liberating and exhilarating! No more leaning on someone else’s opinion; I could find out for myself. 

I didn’t do this earlier in my life because I honestly didn’t realize that I could or that I should. Some have told me they don’t do it because they don’t know how or they are intimidated by it. Others have said that they think that things that are old are hard to understand. I’m not sure whether or not this public perception was by design but it seems to be predominant. Yet, it simply isn’t true. Yes, Shakespeare can be tough. Yes, you need to read Plato a few times to get it. But most older writings, letters, treatises, documents and even Shakespeare have been translated into modern English. You can start there. 

Columbus was not difficult to understand. Most of the original sources I read are not. The letters of John and Abigail Adams, Plato’s “Cave analogy,” Cicero’s speeches, Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” are relatively easy to read. They’re not as easy as modern novels or children’s classics but I bet they aren’t nearly as difficult as most people think they are. Although Shakespeare requires some practice, with an understanding of the plot and a little patience, he can not only be understood but greatly enjoyed.

2) Mix it up

By now you may have noticed that I think you should be reading much more than just books. Most book clubs become boring and monotonous because, as mentioned before, they read almost exclusively modern novels. This is largely because these are the books that are being recommended by people they know and the club members want to read something “easy” and “entertaining.” These groups are missing out on so much enriching reading. While modern novels have their place in the book club world, they are only one resource among dozens of types of readings that your group could enjoy. 

The primary reason modern novels rule the book club scene is lack of exposure and experience on the part of the leaders. If they only knew all the wonderful reading that’s out there, they would have a more enjoyable time reading and much more interesting discussions. Here’s a partial list of genres and types of readings that will help you “think outside the box” when choosing readings for your group:

  • Plays
  • Poetry
  • Speeches
  • Essays
  • Children’s novels
  • Fairy tales
  • Treatise
  • Histories
  • Autobiographies
  • Historical fiction
  • Scientific studies
  • Short stories
  • Self-help
  • Manifestos
  • Documents
  • How-to
  • Great book excerpts
  • Letters
  • Court case summaries
  • Magazine articles

One way to begin “mixing it up” is to decide on a subject or theme you will read about, then simply search on the internet and at your local library for readings about that topic—love, FDR, France or a myriad of subjects could work. Another way is to use the internet to search “10 Best” of any genre. If you spend a few minutes and compare the lists, you’ll quickly discover many of the best in the genre you’ve chosen. Spend a delightful year reading a new “best of” in each genre every month. Or read speeches for a few months, then letters and so on. If you take a little time and look at maps and timelines in addition to the reading, a whole new world of learning will open up to you. 

3) Start simple

As you gain better reading skills, you will come to see that in preparing for a great discussion, it is far more important how you read than that you read a lot of material. Many book clubs feel they have to read an entire book every month. That’s simply not true! Your group can read as much or as little as they’d like. Just as you can utilize all types of readings,  you can also let your book club grow in their capacity to read more effectively by spending several months or perhaps a couple of years reading easier books and practicing your reading and discussion skills. 

The best way to do this is to have your book club read things that are relatively easy for them to understand but which offer rich themes and teach principles that keep reading and discussion deep and meaningful. Classic children’s literature, certain self-help books, some poetry, great books excerpts and fairy tales are a few examples of readings that are short or easy to read but allow for thoughtful reflection and can teach us much. 

When choosing to “start simple,” pick readings that are either short and a little difficult—a few pages from a “great book”, a couple of poems, a sonnet, a document—that you will have time to learn about, read several times and ponder. Or choose easy readings—children’s literature, a magazine article, a play—that you can easily get through in a month allowing you the time to go slowly and really “get it.” This approach helps you mix it up and keeps it fresh with different types of readings every month, while allotting time for the reading and comprehension capacity of your group members to grow until the time comes when you feel ready and excited to “attack” a more difficult classic. While it may seem now like that day would never come, if you follow this natural growth process, I can promise you that it will. I’ve seen it happen to hundreds of individuals and groups. 

With these three simple rules--stick to the original, mix it up, and start simple--your own self-education, the culture in your home, or the book club you're a part of, can begin to flourish in ways you never thought possible. Couple these book choosing rules with good reading skills, a focus on finding and applying principles, and tools for quality discussions, and the sky is the limit for the personal growth and impact you and your group can have!



There is truth. You can know it, live it, and be liberated by it. Begin now to be set free from the significant problems you face. 

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