This week I’ll jump right into the content: a guide on How to Run a Book Group. Feel free to ask questions in the comments or via email etc.
It’s aimed at a general audience rather than my usual Substack peeps, and is meant to be an artifact you can to send to anyone who may be well-poised to knit a bit of social fabric. We’ve got a society to (re)build, you know.
How to run a book group
Why book groups?
Book groups are a great way to learn, make friends and deepen existing intellectual and social relationships. With a light commitment, a good group, and a shared object of attention, book groups can be a shockingly high-value way to spend one’s time.
Also, society is falling apart. The social fabric is unraveling. Book groups are needles and thread for pulling that fabric back together, in a small and deliberate way.
Who are you?
My book groups have read such works as:
Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History
Paul Fussell’s Class
Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy & Hope
Emerson’s The Over-Soul [Essay]
Orwell’s Politics and the English Language [Essay]
Lincoln’s Lyceum Address [Speech]
Samo Burja’s Great Founder Theory [Manuscript]
Other stuff I can’t remember
I’ve also run other types of groups, like writing groups, and attended a variety of book groups run by others.
There are surely people out there with more book group knowledge than me. But they aren’t writing this guide, are they? :D
How to run a book group
1. Know your goals.
It helps to know why you’re reading a book at all. You don’t have to explain your reasons to anyone. It’s just helpful to have them in mind. Knowing these goals will help you choose group structure and membership (steps 4 & 5).
My book groups tend to be intellectual in nature, but you can do book groups for lots of reasons. If you have a group that wants to learn content from a book, it may be most important to focus on understanding and application of ideas.
On the other hand, if you have a group that’s coming together for a more artistic/aesthetic/expressive purpose, you’ll want to have more time for discussing personal reactions than you would in a purely intellectual book group.
Or, maybe the book itself isn’t the point, and it’s more about having a group to chill with. If you have people that are trying to hang out, for example, you might set up a low key atmosphere with time to hang out afterwards.
For more on the many ways of reading books, I recommend How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler.
2. Pick a book.
You’ll know best what book to pick. What book you pick depends on your book group goals. There are many ways to get great book recommendations.
Factors to consider when choosing a book:
Shorter books are easier to get through. That can be a good idea for a new group. Sometimes I even read essays as one-off, single-evening book groups. If you want practice or to test a group dynamic, essays are great.
Many people will be down to try something for ~4 weeks. Even more people will attend a one-off meeting. As the group leader, you can test smaller engagements before doing something ambitious.
Just because a book is short doesn’t mean it’s easy. Think about how proximate the book’s content is to your knowledge and the knowledge of the members you want to bring in. Too easy is boring, too hard is a slog, and people won’t enjoy it.
3. Pick a group size.
Four is objectively the best size for a group discussion. (Thanks to Ben Landau-Taylor for guiding me to this eternal truth.) Size four lets you go deep into contentful discussion, without people having to wait too long to talk, and without requiring a high degree of familiarity among the members.
Other sizes can work if the gods are feeling merciful. If you’re very comfortable with the other members, for example, a total size of three or even two could be cool - but that’s not really a group. Five can be okay if you aren’t entirely sure that all of your members will be able to consistently attend. In larger groups, be prepared to talk a bit less yourself to make space for the others.
I’ve seen even larger formats work. One structure I’ve personally used is a large group that splits into subgroups. We have a large Discord and have 8-10 people show up for the book group, and then we split into two breakout rooms of size 4-5. If you do this, be prepared to choose someone to run the pod that you’re not in - ideally a friend who is proactive and is likely to be able to run that group well. Responsibility must be conserved and you don’t want people just sitting there awkwardly.
4. Pick a meeting structure
Consider the following factors when picking a meeting structure:
Length of meeting
1 hour CAN work, but is a little short. I like 1.5 to 2 hours. It depends on how much time everyone has, how leisurely you want it to be, and how much content there is to get through.
Are people going to read the reading BEFORE the meeting or DURING the meeting (e.g. for a short essay or blog post)? If the latter, make sure people will have enough time in the meeting for both reading and discussion.
Frequency of meeting
I tend to do weekly or twice per month.
Total # of meetings
Eyeball your book. How many meetings will it take to finish it, assuming that’s your goal? As you proceed through the book, you’ll likely adjust the page-length of weekly readings.
Pacing is a central topic in the field of Book Group Management:
All else equal, slow is good. The slower you go, the deeper you go, and the more people actually learn.
The faster you go (i.e., the longer the assigned readings), the more chance there is that people will not really do the readings. It is definitely lame to show up to a meeting where nobody has really done or understood the reading. Too many book groups (and readers in general) prioritize ‘finishing’ over learning anything.
That said, it’s not always easy to get people to commit to coming to book groups for 6+ months at a time, and a slow read of something like the non-abridged A Study of History might take 6 months or longer. For this reason, a bit of haste can be advised.
Also, while being able to say you finished a book is one of the lowest possible motivations for reading a book, it’s still nice to be able to say you finished something! People will enjoy being able to walk away saying “oh yeah, I finished The Republic.”
My usual approach is to get a sense of the group’s preferences, and then make a call.
Structured vs unstructured discussion
Sometimes a meeting structure, like an itinerary, can help things go smoothly, especially if the group is new. Here’s an itinerary I am currently using in a group that I’m running:
Summary (10 min)
Key concepts & theory (20 min)
Concrete examples & application (30 min)
Tying it all together with past readings etc (20 min)
[Buffer time, for flexibility's sake/catching up/meta (10 min)
Total: 90 min
In practice, we stray from the structure to some degree, but have it available in case we need it. It’s more important to adhere to a structure if you need to get readings done by some date, e.g. if the book group isn’t for leisure and is attached to an external deadline for school or something.
A quick note on summaries: In almost all book groups I run, I have someone summarize the reading we did in the first ~5-10 minutes of the meeting. It’s a great way to get someone besides you talking, and let people warm up their minds and vocal cords for the discussion. (I stole this structure from a friend who runs a bunch of book groups, and it’s great.)
Ultimately, people tend to have the most enjoyment when they’re not worried about structure, and are just vibing and discussing. You can decide how much of a stickler to be, just remember to not over-manage the group.
5. Pick people.
Factors to consider when picking people:
Who is interested in this topic that you know?
Will you have to go outside your usual social circle to find people who are a good fit?
Is part of the purpose for people to meet new people, or is it for an existing friend group to do something together?
If the former, you’ll probably want a mix of known and new people.
How can you ensure adequate attendance?
Consistent attendance is important. You can set expectations in advance, saying something like, “I’m glad you’re interested! Just to confirm - it will take us about 8 meetings to finish this book - do you think you’ll be able to make it to all or nearly all of the meetings?” Then if they say yes, you say “great, sounds like a great fit!” or something like that. If they’re wishy washy about this, know what you might be getting into, or just pick someone else.
I prefer book groups with people who are consistent on attendance. In the best book groups it’s not really an issue.
How will the group dynamic be?
Is anyone in the group likely to dominate the discussion or ramble for too long, for example? Nobody is a perfect interlocutor. Will you, as leader, be able/willing to moderate discussion to smooth peoples’ rough edges in discussion? Will members of your group counterbalance each other? You don’t want to overthink these things, but it’s helpful to keep them in mind.
6. Reach out to the people.
Just tell people you’re running a book group and you’d like to have them involved!
It can help to know your expected structure, so you can tell them things like ‘it will be a group of 4, meeting weekly’ etc.
If there are group members who might be a draw to further group members, it can be helpful to talk to those people early. Maybe everyone likes your friend Alice and thinks she’s a genius, and her presence might convince Bob and Carol to come.
7. Find a time.
If you have a large group (>6), it will be impossible to get a perfect time for everyone. Gather information, and then make a call!
I sometimes do a 20-30 min scheduling/introductory meeting before starting the whole thing. I tell people about my goals, cultivate some good vibes, ask about scheduling preferences, and see how people feel about the place I’m planning to set.
8. Have the first real meeting.
It’s your first meeting! Say hello! Introduce everyone to everyone.
Discuss the book. For the first meeting, it matters more that people had a good experience than that anything else goes perfectly.
In early meetings, especially if people are feeling shy, you may have to lead the discussion. If all else fails, just ramble about your experience reading the book! Call on individuals to share reactions, or go in a circle to get a brief reaction from each person. Eventually the conversation will get moving.
9. Have recurring meetings.
Don’t be afraid to replan! This is very important.
If your readings are too long, shorten them.
If it turns out that the book sucks, switch books.
If your planned meeting structure constrains good conversation, ditch or change it.
It’s very helpful to finish things you set out to do, and it’s your job as the book group leader to be a source of clarity, decisiveness, and predictability.
If there are any issues with group membership, don’t be afraid to drop members etc. On occasion you might have to have a hard conversation and privately tell someone they aren’t good fit - though other times it’s better to just bite the bullet on these problems, finish the planned structure, and declare victory. This is leadership training, you’ll be fine.
10. Advanced tips
Multiple books. If your group is badass, it may decide to conquer multiple books together. In these cases it can be good to check in with the group on where it wants to go in terms of book selection. After reading a very difficult book, an easy/short book can be an energizing break.
Attendance requirements. I have run book groups with attendance requirements, where if people missed more than 1 meeting they were booted. This is a little intense but it can be done well. I disprefer this but it’s an option.
Reminders. I tend to send out the reading electronically in advance, to give everyone plenty of notice that we are reading pages 20 to 70 or whatever it is.
That’s it. Good luck. You can do it!
-- Michael Curzi
Many thanks to Ben Landau-Taylor for encouraging me to write this article.