Reading with strangers

One way to expand your reading this year: Join a reading club.

I'm not talking about that book club with your best friends where everyone sips drinks and chitchats about spouses, jobs and children. Those are fun and you should definitely do those, too, because I always will support centering your social life on books. But I'm talking about finding people who will not only read the selected book, but also want to talk — maybe even argue — about it. Join a collection of readers. 

The Mercantile Library made me understand how powerful a reading community can be. The Mercantile is a private library, founded in 1835, and Executive Director John Faherty likes to say its members are the people in your book club who actually read the book. It offers a variety of discussion groups, some specific, some not. There's the Walnut Street Poetry Society and The Canon Club, which has read all of Shakespeare. And on the first Wednesday of each month, a rotating collection of members lead conversations about a variety of books. The first time I went, I was a bit intimidated; I knew no one. But the discussion was interesting, and so I came back for another and another. A year later, I still don't know everyone at every First Wednesday because people jump in and out as their schedules and reading lives change. The variety of people and books and the focus on the single thing we have in common — we all love reading — is why I like it. 

So, how do you find reading clubs? Get to your local library and/or independent bookstore. Most public libraries have one or more book clubs. Find out the next selection and jump in. Check the nearest independent bookstore, too. Mine has book club selections on a dedicated shelf, but if you can't find that easily, ask a bookseller. 

Walking into a roomful of strangers to share your opinion about a book is a pretty big task. But really, all you have to do at first is walk in. Just walk in and listen. You'll find sharing your thoughts gets easier as you know the group dynamic better — or when they hit on the part of a book you really loved or hated. In the meantime, whether you're sitting there silently or even missing a meeting entirely, you're still reading new books. 

If you can't find a reading club, create one. 

If you follow me on social media, you might have seen that this week a dozen of my neighbors — some I knew, some I didn't — met me at our local coffee shop to talk about books. Following a summer of successful community clean-ups and events, a few friends and I wanted to find a way to keep our civic-minded momentum going over the winter. I, believing reading helps with all tasks, suggested a community-themed book club, and was pleasantly surprised when people agreed. We didn't all love our first book, This Is Where You Belong, but we had a lively discussion about why porches are the best and how frustrating it is when authors cherry-pick statistics. 

In addition to my community-themed readers group, I'm running a group discussion this spring at the Mercantile. The New American Lit group will discuss four modern books — Sing, Unburied, SingLilaRedeployment, and Crazy Rich Asians — in conjunction with the classics that inspired them. We'll read a short story from Faulkner with Ward's latest, for instance. I'll also lead a First Wednesday discussion on Little Fires Everywhereand participate in more. 

See if your library will help you start a book club. Mine has a special book club card that lets you check out collections. Building a book club around a theme can help keep the group on task and also bring in people beyond your usual social circle. Advertise on the library or bookstore bulletin board. Put up a Facebook event. Ask a friend, and then have the friend bring a friend. Be willing to read with strangers.