Last semester, Editor in Chief Isabel Sepúlveda (along with Science Editor Sarah Braner) started a book club with her friends and she thinks you should too.
Why You Should Do This
In order to understand why I desperately believe that you should start a book club, it’s vital that you understand the context under which my book club was born. Last summer, I lent my good friend Sarah Braner a tattered copy of Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. It’s one of my favorite books to shove into the hands of my friends who love books—evident in the cover that’s only attached with a bit of tape and sheer force of will—because it’s 1) hilarious and 2) the perfect gateway to the works of Gaiman, one of my all-time favorite writers. My evil scheme worked, and Sarah and I spent most of the summer discussing Neil Gaiman’s bibliography via Twitter DMs, before branching out into other authors after realizing our taste in fiction overlapped significantly. I don’t want to count the number of nights I was up til 4 am in my AirBnB waiting for Sarah get to this important part or engrossed in a conversation about why Shadow from American Gods was the protagonist 2019 deserved.
These discussions were important to me for a number of reasons. In discussing literature together, I got to know one of my best friends better than I ever had before. Maybe it’s just because I’m studying English, but I find talking about stories one of the most intimate things you can do with someone you love, because it gives you a glimpse into how they view the world, and how that might differ from your perspective. It wasn’t just that though. I think pretty much every Columbia student can attest to the fact that reading for pleasure isn’t something you have a ton of time to do in college. Even as someone literally majoring in books, I can count on one hand how often I get to pick up something that isn’t on my syllabus in a given semester unless I consciously make time for it. My friends who are STEM majors have it even worse (SEAS students can, in fact, read; who’da thunk it!)
That was my original reasoning behind making this post: making time to share stories can help you learn more about your friends and bring back the joy to reading. But in this time of social distancing, I actually think the most important thing book club has given me is a community. I was basically alone on campus last August working on a research project and I would go whole days without really talking to another person. Staying up with Sarah to talk about books I loved made me feel less lonely, even though we were literally across the country from one another. In a time where loneliness is reaching epidemic proportions, even before we had to physically distance from one another for the sake of public health, doing something as simple as reading a story with a handful of friends and coming together to talk about it is a beautiful and powerful thing.
As last summer came to a close, Sarah and I wanted to keep reading together and we realized we had a ton of friends who similarly wanted to read for fun more often. Thus, our book club was born!
Now that we got the sappy shit out of the way, let’s get down to business. How do you start a book club? Columbia students are often so busy they barely have time to take care of themselves (an attitude Columbia itself sometimes reinforces); how are they going to have the time or energy to read something they aren’t getting a grade for, let alone meet up with their friends for an hour to talk about it? Different people will have different things that work for them, but here’s what I’ve found effective.
- Pick a day and stick with it. Maybe you meet up for an hour every Friday or on the first Sunday of every month. I like to keep the time relatively flexible because everyone’s schedules differ from week to week but that can be tricky because we have to coordinate every week to figure out the time that works for the majority of people. It does mean, however, that we usually can get a good number of people to show up. Once you pick your day, try your best not to cancel unless you absolutely have to so people make it part of their schedules.
- Pick a relatively private space where you can all see/hear each other. Someone’s suite/floor lounge, the grass outside on a sunny day, and Google Hangouts/Zoom are all fair game. Stick to Zoom for now, unless you want to start a book club with your mom. Or your cat.
- Someone needs to be organized. As you can probably tell, there’s definitely some work that goes into this. Someone has to be willing to set up meetings, remind people when/where the club is and how to access the stories. It’s probably going to be you, the person starting this little get-together, but don’t fear. As you get more people involved and having fun, they’ll help you out a bit with those reminders, etc, even if it’s just bugging you in the group chat with questions.
- Don’t read books. You’re probably already reading 500+ pages a week, or working through a lab and 8 p-sets. Don’t add a huge chore to your plate (and also save your money; books are expensive!). Short stories, some poems, a movie/TV/podcast episode; anything that’s short and sweet will be more likely to be read by your friends in a fit of boredom while working on their actual assignments.
- Keep it casual. This isn’t class. If you don’t do the reading, it’s still totally fine to show up and hang out with your friends. (Snacks and drinks are recommended but definitely not required to make book club a success). If you’re reading something super short (like a poem), read it aloud together! Make your meetings fun to make your friends want to come, but also make sure they know it’s okay if they can’t. You’ll just miss them.
- Get a big group together. Our Facebook group chat is up to about 15 people but I’d say usually 6-10 people show up on any given week because we all have lives and sometimes even an hour one day a week is hard to spare. Invite any friend you think might be interested (or any friend you want to get to know better) and encourage them to do the same! Eventually, you will have a tiny army of readers and it will be beautiful. It also ensures you have a really diverse group of people coming together. If CC has taught me anything, it’s that everyone agreeing on everything makes for a pretty boring way to spend your time.
- Make a group chat. It’s helpful to have a place for reminders, links to your stories, and coordinating your meetings. Also, send memes. Memes are vital.
What If I Hate Fiction?
That’s fine! “Book” club is a loose term, evident in the fact that my book club has only read one actual book thus far. The most important thing is sharing stories and spending time with people you love. Maybe you and your friends are really into film, poetry, or podcasts. If none of that interests you, also consider sharing long-form journalism (like this Slate piece about a man who sat on a jury that convicted two men of murder), TED talks, or scientific papers if that’s what you’re into. As long as it’s fun for all of you, you’re good to go!
Choosing Your Content
My book club has one rule for the stories we pick: they have to be available for free online. If not, we have to scan them and upload to a shared Google Drive folder. But finding things to read can be easier said than done.
If You Already Know What You Want To Suggest
- Check CLIO and other library resources! We might not have access to the physical copies of the books, but you might find an online version of what you want without too much hassle.
- Scanner apps (a ton of which are listed in this post) let you take pictures of the book you want to scan and upload them to Drive. Super helpful if you don’t have a scanner at home/the libraries are closed.
- Google “title of story” + pdf. A lot of schools upload pdfs of short stories this way.
- Find the author’s website and see if they’ve linked it on a bibliography page.
If You Don’t Know Where To Start
- Think about what genres you like to read for fun and then just google “[genre] magazines” or “best [genre] magazines.” Fantasy, science fiction, and horror, in particular, all have a long history of publishing short stories in magazines so there are a ton out there with a hefty back catalog available for free.
- The New Yorker – good for literary fiction!
- Anthologies. Many are sold at a discount on Amazon (usually in e-book form). This can help you figure out what kind of stories you like.
- Old favorites. Think about a story that stuck with you from high school, a beloved childhood bedtime story, or even a fairy tale you love. Try to find other pieces written by the same writer or adaptations of older works.
- Look up your favorite novelist’s website and see if they’ve written any short stories!
- Poetry: Poetry Foundation, Poetry Out Loud, Academy of American Poets
- Podcasts: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, etc. Filter by genre and go nuts.
Assigning Your Readings
Give everyone a chance to share stuff with the wider group! Two systems we’ve found that work well are:
- [Member] Week: Each person chooses a week, picks all the readings for it, and sends them out to the rest of the group. That person can select totally random or have a theme of their own going on. It’s up to them. When doing this, we usually stick with 1-3 stories per week so its not overwhelming.
- [Theme] Week: You all mutually agree on a theme and everyone picks one or more readings that fit with the theme. This usually results in more reading but it’s also really fun to see what your friends think about the same theme. Some ideas we’ve done/that I think would be cool:
- Honor Authors of Diverse backgrounds: In February, we picked a week and all shared our favorite stories/poems by Black writers in honor of Black History Month. You can do the same in months honoring Latinx, Asian American, Indigenous, women, and LGBTQ+ history to diversify your reading list.
- Holiday Week: ex. Spooky Week: Scary stories for Spoopy Season.
- Genre/Type of Story Week: ex. Poetry Week: Everyone has to pick a poem!
- Item/Idea Week: Pick a thing or a concept and everyone has to find something. (ex. Magical Creatures Week, featuring dragons, mermaids, and ghouls.) Oh my! Or, if you want to be more ~esoteric~. Maybe try something like Home Week: Everyone picks a story they think has the theme of “home,” whatever that means to them.
(A note on school breaks: During non-pandemic induced school breaks, we choose to read something a little bit longer than normal—The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. If there’s an actual book you want to read together, now’s the time to do it!)
The Reviews (From the Rest of My Book Club)
- I think having a book club is a good way to take a break from school work and read for pleasure. And it’s nice to be able to discuss books with a group of people who share the same passion for words that you have. Overall wholesome vibes ☺️
- i like bein able to read new things i never wouldve read without this ! i stopped reading for fun when i was younger and i havent been able to get back into it, so being able to read a variety of things with new people is a lot of fun 🙂 plus its helped me become more comfortable in making new friends and finding my place in the columbia community as a first year :,)
- i love that im getting to read things my friends like that i never would have read in class! (although readings & discussions in book club actually have helped me out in other classes!! shoutout josh choosing the penal colony and i think also josh but maybe patrick?? for the descent of man horse story). it’s so refreshing to be able to talk about books/themes i am passionate about without the pretension and inaccessibility of regular english classes. i can say “i love this story bc it is tender and silly while also deeply sad” and that is just as valuable as making a comment on how the story is also a post modernist ecocritical feminist whatever the fuck criticism
- i love getting to talk about literature – i’m a stem major so i don’t have the time to take a bunch of english classes, but i genuinely love thinking about and discussing words and stories, so this gives me the space to do that with my friends
Some Stories To Get You Started
- The Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington – P. Djèlí Clark (fantasy)
- Winter Bride – Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (fantasy)
- The Aleph – Jorge Luis Borges (I cannot define Borges tbh)
- Descent of Species – David Eagleman (horror)
- The Last Words on Earth – Nicole Krauss (literary)
- Previous Condition – James Baldwin (literary)
start a book club you cowards via Bwog Archive