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What's the idea of a book group?

First and foremost, the purpose of a book group is to give its members more to read than they could afford themselves, to introduce them to books and authors they would probably never have thought of reading without the group, and to get different perspectives on the various works.

I want to make clear that we are NOT talking about a reading circle or "Oprah's book of the month" here – nobody is compelled to read anything specific. It’s a combination of recommendation, private library and book saving scheme.

So, how does it work?

You’ll need a minimum of six members to make this kind of group work, and it starts to become unwieldy above ten. Meetings take place once a month. The wider variety of reading tastes you can get amongst your members, the better.

To begin with, each member brings three-four books they particularly like to the first meeting. These books will remain their property, but will be available for other group members to borrow. Members describe the books and why they liked them then put them into the library pool.

Then, everyone dives in and picks out the books they want to borrow – if someone else gets there first, they have to wait till next month.

In addition, each member brings a given sum ($10.00 in our group) to each meeting. At the end of the meeting one member in turn takes that month's cash to buy more books. The books you buy when it's your turn will ultimately belong to you, when the other members have all had chance to read them (and yes, you *can* read them first, since you get them for a month before they have to go into the pool) it's the member’s choice whether to buy new or second hand.

At second and subsequent meetings, the buying member explains why they chose what they did, and everyone talks about what they thought of the books they borrowed last month. Lively discussion ensues. It’s a great way to enlarge your library, your tastes and to spend an entertaining evening.

Technicalities and ground rules

In order for this to work properly, and to make sure it remains fair to all members, ground rules need to be established. Each group will probably have their own ideas, but I’ll list what works for us.

  1. Money: Even if a member can't attend a meeting, they must commit to sending their cash, so that regular members don’t end up funding occasional ones. We don’t allow paying in advance, because then someone has to take care of the cash and records, and none of us have the time or the inclination.
  2. Keeping track of books: All members write their names in the front of books they add to the pool, and a card is put inside each book, giving the title and owner. We have a ring-binder, divided by member. Under each name there is a list of books contributed, and a clearfile pocket (you know those plastic envelope things for keeping documents clean). When a member borrows a book from the pool, they write their name and the date on the card for that book, and the cards are put in the pocket, just like an old fashioned library system – cards are only removed from pockets to return to books, so if you forget to bring a book back it's obvious that you still have it.
  3. Damage: Accidents happen – if a member damages somebody else’s book beyond normal reading wear, they are committed to replacing it.
  4. Removal from the library: Once everyone has read a book, or it hasn’t been borrowed for 6 months, it goes home.
  5. Meetings: There are all kinds of options here. You can decide to have one member host all meetings, rotate it, or choose a location away from anyone’s home. We’ve decided the last – this prevents anyone being stuck with the all the hassle, avoids invidious comparisons of who’s got the nicest house/stuff, and means we aren’t caught without somewhere to meet if the hosting member gets taken ill. We have coffee, but no food, again to prevent inconvenience and competitiveness, and there’s a kitty for providing tea/coffee/milk etc.
  6. Lapsed membership: If a member misses two meetings without sending money, we email them. If they miss a third meeting they're out, and we take a new member off the waiting list (yes, we do have one, already).
  7. We also have a policy of "No reminders". We know the time, dates and place of the meetings. We’re all grown-ups, and it’s our own responsibility to get ourselves there.

It all sounds very regulated. Is it any fun?

God, yeah.

If you like reading, it's brilliant. At the moment, our library contains: short stories, autobiography and biography, mainstream, gay, crime, historical, and science fiction with authors from the USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Germany ranging from the 1930’s to this year. Some of the authors are very well known, like Gunther Grass, John Irving and Agatha Christie, some have only released one book so far, and I've got the pool this month so have just added Philip Pulman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, amongst others.

Discussion can be contentious – some people are going to HATE the things you LOVE, but then what's the fun in everyone agreeing?

Worst case, you’ll get some new books, and a cheap social evening, once a month. Best, you’ll discover authors you never heard of, and find whole new areas of reading you never dreamed you’d enjoy.

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