277 books in 31 years… and counting!
In 1983 my wife and I, together with four other couples, started a book club. We are still meeting monthly, 10 months every year, to share our lives and our food and our experiences of reading stimulating books.
At 77, I’m the oldest. My wife, still in her sixties, is the youngest. We all still live in the same city and have no intention of slowing down.
Every book we’ve read over those 31 years is listed below. There are separate categories for fiction and nonfiction, plus an article I wrote while reflecting on what makes us work so well as a club.
These lists were last updated in February 2014. Please bookmark this page and come back any time for the newest version.
Enjoy, and feel free to contact me to learn more – or to suggest a book!
|Mitch Albom||Tuesdays with Morrie||biography||Jul 2004|
|Ayaan Hirsi Ali||Nomad||autobiography||May 2011|
|Alan Axelrod & Charles Phillips||What Everyone Should Know about the 20th Century: 200 Events That Shaped the World||modern history||Dec 2002|
|Don Bailey & Bob Hinderley, eds.||Best Canadian Christmas Stories||Christmas||Dec 2013|
|Robert Banks||The Tyranny of Time: When 24 Hours Is Not Enough||Christian life||Feb 1988|
|Matthew Barrett et al.||If You Love This Country: Fifteen Voices for a Unified Canada||Canadian politics||Jan 1996|
|Pierre Berton||The National Dream and The Last Spike||Canadian history||Feb 2006|
|Reginald W. Bibby||Fragmented Gods: The Poverty and Potential of Religion in Canada||Canadian religious life||Mar 1990|
|Neil Bissoondath||Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada||Canadian politics||May 1995|
|Kenneth Blanchard & Spencer Johnson||The One Minute Manager||business||Jan 1986|
|Christie Blatchford||Fifteen Days: Stories of Bravery, Friendship, Life and Death from Inside the New Canadian Army||military||Sep 2011|
|Erma Bombeck||If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?||humour||Apr 2001|
|Gregory A. Boyd & Edward K. Boyd||Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father’s Questions About Christianity||Christian life||Sep 1997|
|Barry Broadfoot||Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame: The Story of the Japanese Canadians in World War I||Canadian history||Nov 1988|
|Bill Bryson||A Short History of Nearly Everything||world history||Apr 2008|
|Gracia Burnham with Dean Merrill||In the Presence of My Enemies||missionary biography||Oct 2003|
|Fox Butterfield||China: Alive in the Bitter Sea||Chinese history||Nov 1987|
|Jack Canfield et al.||Chicken Soup for the Father’s Soul: Stories to Open the Hearts and Rekindle the Spirits of Fathers||stories – family||Dec 2001|
|Paul Chamberlain||Can We Be Good Without God?: A Conversation About Truth, Morality, Culture, and a Few Other Things That Matter||apologetics||Aug 1996|
|Paul Chamberlain||Why People Don’t Believe: Confronting Seven Challenges to Christian Faith||apologetics||Nov 2011|
|Noam Chomsky||What Uncle Sam Really Wants||political philosophy||Dec 1997|
|Denise Chong||The Concubine’s Children: Portrait of a Family Divided||biography||May 1997|
|Michael Clarke, ed.||Canada: Portraits of Faith||biography||Nov 1998|
|Stephen R. Covey||The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic||success psychology||Nov 1994|
|David Cruise||The Great Adventure: How the Mounties Conquered the West||Canadian history||Dec 1998|
|Constance Cumbey||The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow: The New Age Movement and Our Coming Age of Barbarism||popular theology||Mar 1984|
|Roald Dahl||Going Solo||autobiography||May 1990|
|Romeo Dallaire with Major Brent Beardsley||Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda||African history||Mar 2005|
|Bronwyn Drainie||My Jerusalem: Secular Adventures in the Holy City||travel/religion||Jun 1996|
|Ken Dryden||In School: Our Kids, Our Teachers, Our Classrooms||education||Feb 1998|
|Nancy Dubler & David Nimmons||Ethics on Call: A Medical Ethicist Shows How to Take Charge of Life-and-Death Choices||ethics||Feb 1995|
|Freeman Dyson||Disturbing the Universe||autobiography||May 2013|
|Howard Engel||The Man Who Forgot to Read||autobiography||Oct 2009|
|Bruce Feiler||Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion||travel/religion||Mar 2010|
|Will Ferguson||Bastards and Boneheads: Canada’s Glorious Leaders Past and Present||Canadian history||Mar 2002|
|Will Ferguson||Why I Hate Canadians||humour||Jun 1999|
|David K. Foot with Daniel Stoffman||Boom, Bust & Echo: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift||economic forecasting||Oct 1997|
|Viktor E. Frankl||Man’s Search for Meaning||success psychology||Apr 2007|
|Brigette Gabriel||Because They Hate: A Survivor of Islamic Terror Warns America||political philosophy||Jun 2008|
|William D. Gairdner||The Trouble with Canada||Canadian politics||Jan 1991|
|Joe Garner||Never Fly Over an Eagle’s Nest||Canadian history||Apr 1988|
|Malcolm Gladwell||Outliers: The Story of Success||economic forecasting||Apr 2009|
|Malcolm Gladwell||The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference||social values||Jan 2007|
|Paul Goetze||Never Alone!||autobiography||Nov 2009|
|George Grant||The Third Time Around: A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present||social values||Jun 1996|
|Michael Grant||Jesus||biography||Sep 2005|
|Michel Gratton||French Canadians: An Insider’s Outside Look at Quebec||Canadian history||Nov 1993|
|John Gray||Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus||psychology||Oct 1996|
|Sean Griffin, ed.||Fighting Heritage: Highlights of the 1930s Struggle for Jobs and Militant Unionism in British Columbia||Canadian history||Jul 1995|
|Jerome Groopman||How Doctors Think||medical ethics||Dec 2007|
|James D. Gwartney & Richard L. Stroup||What Everyone Should Know about Economics and Prosperity||economics||Oct 1994|
|Ron Hall & Denver Moore||Same Kind of Different As Me||memoir||Jan 2013|
|Paul Hellyer||The Evil Empire: Globalization’s Darker Side||Canadian economic policy||May 1998|
|Lawrence Hill||Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada||Canadian race relations||Jun 2002|
|Laura Hillenbrand||Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption||history||Jun 2012|
|Gertrude Himmelfarb||The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values||social values||Feb 1997|
|Dilip Hiro||Islamic Fundamentalism||political philosophy||Jan 1989|
|Richmond P. Hobson, Jr.||Grass Beyond the Mountains: Discovering the Last Great Cattle Frontier on the North American Continent||exploration||Oct 1991|
|Dave Hunt & T. A. McMahon||The Seduction of Christianity: Spiritual Discernment in the Last Days||Christian life||May 1986|
|Walter Isaacson||Steve Jobs||biographyy||Sep 2012|
|Stuart Isacoff||Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization||music history||Dec 2003|
|Grant R. Jeffrey||The Millennium Meltdown: The Year 2000 Computer Crisis||eschatology||Mar 1999|
|Anneliese Jeske||All Roads Lead to Home||autobiography||Apr 2012|
|Rhoda Janzen||Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home||memoir||Dec 2010|
|Herant Katchadourian||Midlife in Perspective: 50||lifestyle issues||Sep 1995|
|Garrison Keillor||Lake Wobegon Days||autobiography||May 1987|
|Elizabeth Suderman Klassen||Trailblazer for the Brethren||biography||May 1991|
|Tim LaHaye||How to Manage Pressure Before Pressure Manages You||Christian life||Feb 1986|
|Joyce Landorf||Morning Song||Christian life||Oct 1984|
|Alfred Lansing||Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage||biography – adventure||Mar 2011|
|Madeleine L’Engle||The Summer of the Great-Grandmother||biography||Sep 1998|
|Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner||Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything||economics||Feb 2008|
|C. S. Lewis||A Grief Observed||memoir||Jan 2001|
|Amanda Lindhout & Sara Corbett||A House in the Sky||memoir||Nov 2013|
|Jonathan Lopez||The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han Van Meegeren||art history||May 2010|
|Ervin Austin MacDonald||The Rainbow Chasers||autobiography||Oct 1989|
|Lloyd Mackey||Like Father, Like Son: Ernest & Preston Manning||biography||Jan 1998|
|Lloyd Mackey||The Pilgrimage of Stephen Harper||biography||Apr 2006|
|James & Rowena Mahar||Too Many to Mourn: One Family’s Tragedy in the Halifax Explosion||biography||Dec 2000|
|Preston Manning||The New Canada||Canadian politics||Jun 1992|
|Preston Manning||Think Big||Canadian politics||Nov 2003|
|Sandra Martz||If I Had My Life to Live Over I Would Pick More Daisies||autobiography||Apr 1999|
|Adrienne Mason||West Coast Adventures: Shipwrecks, Lighthouses, and Rescues Along Canada’s West Coast||Canadian history||Mar 2009|
|Peter Mayle||A Year in Provence||travel memoir||Mar 2000|
|Alan Loy McGinnis||The Friendship Factor: How to Get Closer to the People You Care For||human relationships||Apr 1993|
|Frank McCourt||Angela’s Ashes||memoir||Dec 1999|
|Michael Medved||Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values||popular culture / ethics||Jun 1993|
|Elizabeth Mehren||Born Too Soon: The Extraordinary True Story of One Infant’s Fight to Survive||medical ethics||Apr 1994|
|Orville J. & Dorothy R. Messenger||Borrowed Time: A Surgeon’s Struggle with Transfusion-Induced AIDS||biography||Jun 1995|
|Joyce Milgaard with Peter Edwards||A Mother’s Story: The Fight to Free My Son David||Canadian jurisprudence||Apr 2000|
|Keith Miller||The Taste of New Wine||Christian life||May 1984|
|Virginia Mollencott||Women, Men, and the Bible||Christian thought||Apr 1986|
|Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin||Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time||education||Apr 2010|
|Azar Nafisi||Reading Lolita in Tehran||memoir||May 2005|
|John Naisbitt||Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives||the future||Jan 1985|
|Adam Nicolson||God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible||literary history||?|
|Eric Nicol||Girdle Me a Globe||humour||Feb 2012|
|Carol S. North||Welcome, Silence: My Triumph over Schizophrenia||mental illness||Dec 1989|
|Michael Ondaatje||Running in the Family||autobiography||Jan 1995|
|Jimmy Pattison with Paul Grescoe||Jimmy: An Autobiography||autobiography||Jun 1988|
|Orhan Pamuk||Istanbul: Memories and the City||memoir||Jan 2012|
|Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow||The Last Lecture||autobiography||Nov 2008|
|Jim Peron||Exploding Population Myths||popular culture / ethics||Feb 1996|
|Tom Peters & Robert Waterman||In Search of Excellence||business||Nov 1984|
|Robert M. Pirsig||Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values||popular culture / ethics||Sep 1993|
|Pope John Paul II||Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium||Christian thought||Jun 2005|
|John Powell||Why Am I Afraid to Love||human relationships||Jan 1988|
|Dan Quayle||Standing Firm: A Vice-Presidential Memoir||biography||Mar 1996|
|Billy Romp with Wanda Urbanska||Christmas on Jane Street||memoir||Dec 2006|
|Gretchen Rubin||The Happiness Project||memoir||Dec 2011|
|Jeff Rubin||Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization||economics||Dec 2009|
|Albert A. Runge||A Brooklyn Jew Meets Jesus: The Life and Ministry of Albert Abram Runge||autobiography||Nov 2007|
|Oliver Sacks||An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales||neurology||Jan 1997|
|Jean P. Sasson||Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia||biography||Apr 1998|
|Ulrich Schaffer||Greater Than Our Hearts: Prayers and Reflections||poetry||Jun 1984|
|Gail Sheehy||Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life||Christian life||Sep 1989|
|Tom Sine||The Mustard Seed Conspiracy||Christian life||May 1985|
|Melvin H. Smith||Our Home or Native Land? What Governments’ Aboriginal Policy Is Doing to Canada||Canadian government policy||Nov 1995|
|Rodney Stark||The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success||political philosophy||Nov 2006|
|Mark Steyn||America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It||political philosophy||Oct 2008|
|Carsten Stroud||Contempt of Court: The Betrayal of Justice in Canada||Canadian criminal justice||Oct 1993|
|Molyda Szymusiac||The Stones Cry Out: A Cambodian Childhood 1975-80||autobiography||May 2007|
|Scott Taylor & Brian Nolan||Tarnished Brass: Crime and Corruption in the Canadian Military||Canadian military history||Nov 1997|
|John Marks Templeton||Worldwide Laws of Life: 200 Eternal Spiritual Principles||Christian life||Jan 1999|
|Paul Tournier||The Adventure of Living||Christian life||Dec 1986|
|Stefan Ulstein||Growing Up Fundamentalist: Journeys in Legalism and Grace||fundamentalism||Sep 1996|
|Dennis Waitley||Seeds of Greatness: The Ten Best-Kept Secrets of Total Success||success psychology||Apr 1985|
|David Warren||Essays on Our Times: Church and Mosque and State; Wrestling with Islam; The War in Iraq||current events||May 2003|
|Jeanette Walls||The Glass Castle||memoir||Feb 2013|
|Rudy Wiebe||Of This Earth||memoir||Mar 2014|
|Simon Winchester||The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary||biography||Jan 2000|
|Peter Wright with Paul Greengrass||Spy Catcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer||autobiography||Sep 1990|
|Ronald Wright||A Short History of Progress||history of civilization||Jan 2005|
|Philip Yancey||What’s So Amazing About Grace?||Christian thought||Oct 1999|
|Mosab Hassan Yousef||Son of Hamas||autobiography||Jan 2011|
|Ravi Zacharias||Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message||Christian thought||Sep 2001|
|Ravi Zacharias||A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism||Christian thought||Feb 1991|
|Chinua Achebe||Things Fall Apart||Mar 1986|
|Jeffrey Archer||Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less||Feb 2000|
|Margaret Atwood||The Handmaid’s Tale||Oct 1986|
|Jane Austen||Persuasion||May 1992|
|William Badke||Saluso’s Game||Nov 1996|
|Shauna Singh Baldwin||What the Body Remembers||May 2001|
|Joseph Bayly||The Gospel Blimp||Apr 1984|
|Joseph Bayly||Winterflight||Feb 1989|
|David Bergen||The Time In Between||Mar 2006|
|Maeve Binchy||The Lilac Bus||Mar 1993|
|Sandra Birdsell||The Russlander||Nov 2004|
|Max Braithwaite||Never Sleep Three in a Bed||Apr 1995|
|Charlotte Brontë||Jane Eyre||Mar 2007|
|Dan Brown||The Da Vinci Code||Feb 2005|
|Christopher Buckley||The White House Mess||Dec 1994|
|Morley Callaghan||A Time for Judas||Mar 1987|
|Koonchung Chan||The Fat Years||May 2012|
|G. K. Chesterton||Father Brown||Feb 2001|
|G. K. Chesterton||“Woman” and “The Mad Official”||Dec 1993|
|Joan Clark||Latitudes of Melt||Feb 2009|
|Harlan Cobden||Tell No One||Apr 2002|
|Joseph Conrad||Heart of Darkness||Dec 1987|
|Jill Ker Conway||The Road from Coorain||Apr 1992|
|Hugh Cook||“Cracked Wheat” and Other Stories||Oct 1990|
|Margaret Craven||I Heard the Owl Call My Name||Nov 1992|
|Michael Crummey||River Thieves||Nov 2005|
|Roald Dahl||Charlie and the Chocolate Factory||May 1990|
|Achmat Dangor||Bitter Fruit||Sep 2008|
|Robertson Davies||The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks||May 1989|
|Frank Parker Day||Rockbound||Apr 2005|
|Fyodor Dostoevsky||Crime and Punishment||Mar 1994|
|Kim Edwards||The Memory Keeper’s Daughter||Jun 2007|
|George Eliot||Silas Marner||Jan 2002|
|Will Ferguson||419||Oct 2013|
|Timothy Findlay||The Piano Man’s Daughter||Jul 2003|
|Gustave Flaubert||Madame Bovary||Nov 2002|
|Ken Follett||Pillars of the Earth||Jun 2009|
|E. M. Forster||A Passage to India||Dec 1985|
|John Fowles||The French Lieutenant’s Woman||Jun 1989|
|Jonathan Franzen||Freedom||Feb 2011|
|Charles Frazier||Cold Mountain||Nov 2000|
|Kate Furnivall||The Jewel of St. Petersburg||Oct 2010|
|Diana Gabaldon||Outlander||Mar 1998|
|Lisa Genova||Still Alice||Apr 2011|
|Camilla Gibb||Sweetness in the Belly||Feb 2007|
|Arthur Golden||Memoirs of a Geisha||Jan 2006|
|Leona Gom||Housebroken||Apr 1989|
|Graham Greene||The End of the Affair||Sep 2000|
|Philippa Gregory||The Red Queen||Nov 2012|
|John Grisham||The Brethren||?|
|John Grisham||The Summons||Apr 2003|
|John Grisham||The Testament||Jun 2000|
|Sara Gruen||Water for Elephants||May 2008|
|Jane Hamilton||A Map of the World||Jun 2001|
|John A. & Michael J. Haskett||The Day B.C. Quit Canada||Mar 2004|
|Nathaniel Hawthorne||The Scarlet Letter||Sep 2007|
|Elizabeth Hay||Late Nights on Air||May 2009|
|Urgula Hegi||Stones from the River||Jan 2003|
|Ernest Hemingway||“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and Other Stories||May 1988|
|Herman Hesse||Siddhartha||Apr 1987|
|Lawrence Hill||The Book of Negroes||Jan 2010|
|Alice Hoffman||The Dovekeepers||Feb 2014|
|Khaled Hosseini||The Kite Runner||Oct 2005|
|Khaled Hosseini||A Thousand Splendid Suns||Jan 2008|
|Helen Humphreys||The Lost Garden||Oct 2002|
|John Irving||A Prayer for Owen Meany||Oct 1995|
|P. D. James||Death in Holy Orders||Mar 2003|
|P. D. James||Original Sin||Jun 1998|
|Lloyd Jones||Mister Pip||Sep 2010|
|William Kennedy||Ironweed||Mar 1988|
|Philip Kerr||Dark Matter||May 2004|
|Barbara Kingsolver||The Poisonwood Bible||Nov 1999|
|Vincent Lam||Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures||Feb 2010|
|Margaret Laurence||The Stone Angel||Sep 1991|
|Mary Lawson||Crow Lake||Jan 2009|
|Stephen Leacock||Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town||Oct 1985|
|Harper Lee||To Kill a Mockingbird||Dec 1995|
|C. S. Lewis||Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold||Nov 1991|
|George MacDonald||The Curate’s Awakening||Nov 1985|
|Hugh MacLennan||The Watch That Ends the Night||Sep 1992|
|Alistair MacLeod||No Great Mischief||Oct 2001|
|Naguib Mahfouz||The Beggar||Jan 2004|
|Yann Martel||Life of Pi||?|
|Stuart MacLean||Extreme Vinyl Cafe||Nov 2010|
|James A. Michener||The Novel||Jan 1994|
|Arthur Miller||The Crucible||Sep 1988|
|W. O. Mitchell||Ladybug, Ladybug||Feb 1990|
|W. O. Mitchell||Who Has Seen the Wind?||Feb 1987|
|Brian Moore||The Luck of Ginger Coffey||Dec 1988|
|Lisa Moore||February||Sep 2013|
|Toni Morrison||Song of Solomon||Mar 1997|
|Farley Mowat||The Black Joke||Mar 2012|
|John J. Nance||Pandora’s Clock||Apr 1997|
|Michael Ondaatje||The Cat’s Table||Oct 2011|
|Michael Ondaatje||In the Skin of a Lion||Feb 2003|
|George Orwell||Nineteen Eighty-four||Feb 1984|
|Alan Paton||Cry, the Beloved Country||Jan 1992|
|Richard North Patterson||Protect and Defend||Sep 2004|
|Frank E. Peretti||This Present Darkness||Jan 1990|
|Ellis Peters||The Heretic’s Apprentice||Oct 1992|
|Chaim Potok||The Chosen||Oct 1988|
|Kate Pullinger||The Mistress of Nothing||Jun 2011|
|Erich M. Remarque||All Quiet on the Western Front||Jan 1987|
|Mordecai Richler||The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz||Mar 1995|
|Mordecai Richler||Barney’s Version||Sep 1999|
|Marilynne Robinson||Gilead||May 2006|
|J. K. Rowling||Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Feb 2002|
|Arundhati Roy||The God of Small Things||May 2000|
|Edward Rutherfurd||The Princes of Ireland: The Dublin Saga||Oct 2004|
|J. D. Salinger||The Catcher in the Rye||Jun 1994|
|Dorothy L. Sayers||Gaudy Night||Dec 2005|
|Carol Shields||The Stone Diaries||Apr 1996|
|Carol Shields||Unless||Sep 2002|
|Anita Shreve||The Pilot’s Wife||Oct 2000|
|Graeme Simsion||The Rosie Project||Jan 2014|
|M.L. Stedman||The Light Between Oceans||Apr 2013|
|Paul St. Pierre||Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse||Nov 1986|
|Paul St. Pierre||Smith and Other Events: Tales of the Chilcotin||Sep 2009|
|Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn||One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich||Nov 1990|
|John Steinbeck||The Grapes of Wrath||Feb 1992|
|Kathryn Stockett||The Help||Jun 2010|
|Harriet Beecher Stowe||Uncle Tom’s Cabin||Dec 1984|
|Jonathan Swift||A Tale of a Tub||Jun 1987|
|Amy Tan||The Joy Luck Club||Jan 1993|
|Reah Tannahill||Fatal Majesty: The Drama of Mary Queen of Scots||May 1999|
|Timothy Taylor||Stanley Park||Feb 2004|
|Miriam Toews||A Complicated Kindness||Oct 2006|
|Leo Tolstoy||The Death of Ivan Ilych||Feb 1993|
|Mark Twain||The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn||Sep 2006|
|Barry Unsworth||Morality Play||Jun 2006|
|Leon Uris||The Haj||Sep 1986|
|Leon Uris||Trinity||Sep 1987|
|Jane Urquhart||Away||Feb 1999|
|Jane Urquhart||The Stone Carvers||Nov 2001|
|Guy Vanderhaeghe||The Last Crossing||Apr 2004|
|Various authors||selected children’s books||Mar 2013|
|Various authors||selected Harlequin romances||Dec 2012|
|Rudy Wiebe||The Blue Mountains of China||Feb 1985|
|Robert J. Wiersema||Before I Wake||Oct 2007|
|William P. Young et al.||The Shack||Dec 2008|
The following piece was first published in November 2010. Thanks to my bookclub friends for critiquing an earlier version, and to Steve Rudy for the consequent revision.Download or print this article
Guidelines for successful book clubs
Since 1983 my wife and I have been members of a book club. We are one of five couples who are currently reading our 243rd book together. In recent days I have had the opportunity to clarify my own understanding of our club’s success and longevity, and thought it could be useful to share some of my insights with others who may be thinking of starting reading groups of their own.
1. A working book club is BOTH literary and social. Don’t neglect either.
I’ve heard that some clubs run into trouble when some members expect to discuss the book in depth and others expect a free-ranging social evening instead. Neither expectation is wrong! But problems come when someone wants one OR the other, not the obvious combination of both.
Our club has found it most useful to alternate homes for our monthly meetings and to share some food together at the beginning of each meeting, either a potluck supper or a dessert (in alternating months). We are able to catch up on each other’s lives and enjoy each other’s excellent cooking. Then, once well fed and socially lubricated, we can launch into the book discussion with improved focus.
It’s generally worked best when the host couple doesn’t have to lead the discussion. That way the hosts can concentrate on food and hospitality without the distraction of planning the book discussion, and the discussion leaders can concentrate on inspiring ideas without worrying about cooking.
These people are not my oldest friends (I’m over 70 and still have friends from my childhood with whom I keep in touch), but of the local friends I interact with regularly, they’re by far the most consistent, reliable, and meaningful. We’ve brought this on ourselves with regular meetings and clear purpose. And as such, they’re there to help me, and I them, when there’s a need – like an illness, for example, when the rest of us quickly find out and pitch in with food and other support.
2. When picking books, get recommendations from others, but trust your instincts.
Last week, I selected the latest book of Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café stories for our club’s next meeting – without even looking at the title. It turned out that McLean was signing books at my local Costco store that day, exactly the day I was hunting for a book, and both he and his producer turned out to be kind, gracious professionals, generous with their time and patient with my aging memory as I scoured my brain for one of the couples’ names – yes, despite having known them for 27 years. Did I mention my age? (The memory tip that finally worked, courtesy of S.McL., was: Picture the house they live in.) I walked away with a big smile and five* autographed books, each happily received at the next meeting.
It’s not worth pretending that moments like this just fall out of the sky, but I think we can make ourselves especially poised to recognize and act on them as much as possible. It may be a simple matter of paying close attention to our environments and keeping sufficiently open minds.
Generally, I like to work out my ideas with other people. My preference to collaborate may, significantly, have been a product of my engineering background, but it also partially explains why I enjoy book club so much and why I am so happy that all four of my well-educated children married readers and are raising a new generation of young readers. Book reviews are just a phone call or email away for me. My son-in-law in particular, who has taught university writing and is currently helping me with my writing, has the useful habit of suggesting books as he thinks of them, so even though his last few suggestions left me underwhelmed (and later grateful for the inspiration at Costco), I’m eager to hear what he comes up with next.
In summary: Find sources you trust and keep going to them. These could be friends or family who have similar tastes to yours, or book reviewers in print or on the web, or the staff and fellow shoppers at your favourite bookstore. You may find other book clubs to be an especially good source.
But keep in mind that the final decision is yours. Certain books just feel right. You’ll know. (And trust others to use their intuition as well when choosing books; this leads to stimulating variety.)
*Related advice: When it’s your turn to buy books, buy copies for everyone. Though we didn’t start out this way, the principle is self-explanatory, once you think about it.
3. Be willing to talk about yourself.
We recently read a book set in St. Petersburg, Russia, a city that two of the couples had visited this year. My wife and I hosted the meeting, for which she prepared Russian borscht and Polish bigos and I compiled a set of photos of Russia to be shown as an automatic slideshow on our living-room HDTV.
As usual, our discussion was stimulating, invigorating, and sometimes emotional. Soon after we examined the book’s literary context (it was the first part of a trilogy but written last), some of us contributed personal contexts as well – in my case, not just stories from recent travels in Russia but also my own father’s experience as a child when he was exiled to Saratov, Russia, and experienced there some of the suffering described in the novel we’d read. My wife had even more to say: three of her father’s siblings died in the freezing boxcars taking them to frozen Russia, and the dead children had to be hidden under the straw in the railroad car for fear the authorities would separate the surviving family.
The rest of the club members had not personally lived through such conflicts and migrations, and so stood to gain from the perspective we contributed. Likewise, the others’ lives have granted them perspectives that I don’t have on my own but am always grateful to borrow.
Everyone has something different to offer, and to hold back just because your own experience seems too subjective is to deny your companions the enlightening connections they might make between their own experiences and yours. Trust your friends to filter out your prejudice, your blindness, your limitations, and to find the general human truth in a well-told specific personal story or opinion.
There’s a related key point: respect the privacy of your fellow members; respect what is told to you in confidence; respect the right of others to control the audience for what they privately and personally share. I recently relearned this in a hard and surprising way, when I circulated a more personally revealing (and more specifically narrative) version of this piece to the rest of the club for advice. Expecting praise or at least encouragement for my sincere boasts about my friends, I received instead a unanimous rebuke questioning the “appropriateness” and even the very purpose of my passionate words. Without going into too much embarrassing detail, the lesson I relearned, which I’m now passing on to you, is that “What happens in book club, stays in book club” – these, the words of a friend whose name I’ve respectfully withheld.
4. Be willing to talk about the issues of the day, even if disagreement is inevitable.
In our first meeting in 1983 we (all ten of us, the same five couples as today) watched the film Gandhi, which had recently come out on video, at our home. My personal journal for that day records my reflections on the film’s complicated messages about the power of protest and the fragility of peace, inspired no doubt by the discussion with new friends.
On the same page of my diary I mention the general strike that was breaking out all across British Columbia that year in protest against the provincial government’s fiscally conservative “Restraint” policies. It was an interesting comparison to Gandhi’s practice of non-violent non-cooperation, and a reminder to me now that the free exchange of ideas that book clubs encourage can have simultaneously local and global relevance. Our club has never shied away from the topical, and has been enriched over and over again by close interaction with the significant issues of the day.
Over the decades that followed, continued labour disputes would pit two of our members against each other, but only once (the first time) was it necessary to cancel our regular monthly meeting. After that, our differences created a benefit, not a threat, to our shared reading and thinking together.
A “first-rate intelligence,” according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, is marked by “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” The same intellectual character may also identify book clubs likely to survive many years: the ability to function well despite, or in many cases because of, individual oppositions. A mature community of readers and thinkers need not take others’ agreement for granted; rather, even among friends, we strive to earn agreement – and when this is not possible, we give and receive respectful disagreement.
5. Look for ways to follow up with authors and texts.
The Stuart McLean book was an obvious choice for me: I enjoy his radio program, as do many of the other members, and I enjoyed meeting him and benefiting from his comparatively youthful memory. When there is a connection with an author or book that in some way goes beyond the words on the page, the experience is more valuable and memorable.
In the case of McLean’s Vinyl Café books, much of the enjoyment comes from imagining the stories read in his carefully trained radio voice – long vowels, soft consonants, pauses well timed for effect. I’m still thinking about how nice it would be if I could introduce him to some of the other book club members when his show is in town next month.
(FYI: We have only had two authors decline an invitation to join our club’s discussion of their books. One had already accepted an invitation to the White House for the same date in 1988, and the other, a dear friend, was homebound with a terminal illness last year when we were scheduled to discuss his book, and, I’m sad to say, died not long before our meeting.)
6. Make your meetings a high priority.
All five couples are travelling more than they used to, sometimes for extended periods. Most of the members are active in the community, with related responsibilities. There seems to be little difference in free time between the retired and employed members.
But, as I mentioned, we’ve only missed one monthly meeting in 27 years, and that was a deliberate political choice. We’ve tried each year to plan ahead for a series of dates everyone can agree to. (We also find it useful to avoid formal meetings in July and August, though there is usually an informal activity for those who are in town.) Whenever individual situations suggest a schedule change, we’ve made every effort to find a new date that works for everyone. Sometimes this is truly impossible and the rest of us will meet in someone’s absence, but we try to keep those occasions rare.
(By the way, this is also an argument for restricting a book club to a manageable size.)
In short: Everyone’s busy but finds a way. Usually we find a Saturday evening we all have free, but there wasn’t one next month, so we went for a weekday instead. It’ll be a nice mid-week treat, almost like a holiday.
7. Keep records.
Did I mention we’ve read over 200 books together already? I’ll also mention that I once tried to keep them together, on a specially dedicated shelf (or rather shelves), and I also make sure to write the date and discussion leader on the title page of each book. Keeping track of all this history is still an intimidating enterprise, though, and I find myself too quickly losing what I’d rather keep.
So consider appointing a secretary/archivist – either permanently or for rotating terms. Some people are particularly, enthusiastically skilled at this; look for those who demonstrate good organizational skills and some competence with spreadsheets or databases. Minimally, keep track of authors, titles, and dates – though hosts and discussion leaders are also useful to remember.
8. Have fun.
This isn’t school. There are no exams to write. You’re an independent adult (right?). These are your friends, good ones. You’re sharing some of the best experiences of your lives. So stop worrying, relax, and enjoy yourself. Tomorrow has enough problems of its own, and they won’t go away on their own, but your ability to confront them, to move forward with your own life and its challenges, will be enhanced immeasurably by the continued inspiration of your intellectual and emotional friendship.
Plus, if you’re lucky like I am, the food’s great.