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Ann Cannon: Book clubs are a lot like families

By Ann Cannon

| Tribune Columnist

First Published Jan 14 2014 05:09 pm • Last Updated Jan 14 2014 08:40 pm

Why, yes, it’s true! The Trib is starting an online book club this month. On Jan. 31 at 12:15, the fabulous Jennifer Napier-Pearce will lead a live video discussion on the book "The Ordinary Truth" by Jana Richmond. We’d love for you to join us on the 31st, as well as for the rest of the year, as we discuss works of fiction and nonfiction that explore issues related to our region.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about the nature of book clubs, so I posed this question to friends on my Facebook page, as well as to the staff at The King’s English Booksore: Why do some book clubs succeed while others fail? The answers were thoughtful and varied, leading me to conclude that book clubs are a lot like families — there’s not one right way to "be." A book club that works well for some people may not be a good fit for others. An individual’s temperament and tastes, as well as the amount of time he or she has to devote to the club, can affect the experience. Here are a few of the observations.

At a glance

Utah Lit

The Salt Lake Tribune is launching a new monthly online book club and you’re invited to participate.

We’re calling it Utah Lit, and it’s an opportunity to explore Utah and regional writers who take on New West issues in novels, poetry and nonfiction. We’ll also highlight Utah women writers and the female characters they create, the state’s many writers of genre books, and books that provide context to our state’s cultural divide and extend the conversation in interesting ways.

Our inaugural selection is “The Ordinary Truth” by Jana Richman, the compelling story of a ranching family divided by a proposed water pipeline that would draw water from western Utah to Las Vegas.

Look for a story about the book and its author later this month and join us on Jan. 31 at 12:15 p.m. for a live TribTalk video chat about the book. Jennifer Napier-Pearce will moderate the discussion.

Send questions or your book recommendations to jnpearce@sltrib.com. You also may follow Utah Lit on Twitter: @utahlit or find more information on the club’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/utahlit.

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Book clubs can falter for a number of reasons. Sometimes they become unwieldy in terms of their size. Friends invite friends who invite friends who invite MORE friends and suddenly that initial sense of intimacy and trust present in the original group evaporates. Sometimes the opposite is true: Not enough people attend to carry on a decent discussion about the book itself. It’s hard to talk about a book when only two of you show up and one of you hasn’t read it yet.

A shift in a group’s social dynamic — core members moving away or dropping out, for example — can cause the group to flounder. So can the tendency of one member to dominate the discussion, particularly if that person strays off-topic.

A book group can run into trouble if members don’t agree about how their group should function. Furthermore, a group that is structured either too tightly ("You WILL read the book or else you’ll be shot at the crack of dawn") or too loosely ("Wait, we were supposed to read a book this month?") can be a problem. For others, the title selections present difficulties. As one friend said, "Don’t ever think a ‘self-help book’ book group is a good idea. It is a bad, bad idea! Group therapy at its worst."

Book groups that work, on the other hand, foster a sense of camaraderie. As one friend, a librarian, points out, "Book groups that succeed are based more on the relationships than the books that are read. You have to want to be there and enjoy each other and the conversation. You may hate the book, but you gotta love the group."

Groups where members feel "safe" to express their honest opinions are especially valued. As one friend said, "Our founding principle is that you are not required to like the book, no hard feelings." Of course, an environment where disagreement is handled with respect and kindness is crucial when it comes to building trust among members. According to another friend, a willingness to try new things is also helpful. "I love it when I read a book someone else in the club chose … [and gain] a whole new feeling for it through our discussion."

Most people enjoy book groups where they can be involved at some level in the selection process. In some groups, members take turns choosing titles on a monthly basis. In other groups, a selection committee makes decisions for an entire year, based on input from the group. One friend says she appreciates a group where there’s no pressure to read "the latest most important books."

Of course, participating in an online book group will be a different experience in many ways, but we’re eager to hear your opinions and suggestions. Please join us!

For more information, follow us on Twitter @utahlit or go to www.facebook.com/utahlit.

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