Tricky Book Club Questions (What to Pick? When to Meet? How to Quit?) Answered

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kathy is awesome

Thinking of starting a book club? Ready to reboot a club that’s starting to fizzle? We are tremendously lucky to have Kathy Schultenover on our team, managing the Parnassus Book Club. She recently hosted two book club seminars at the store, passing on a wealth of guidance gained over her decades of experience. Here’s a little background on Kathy, plus some of her best advice:

How did you get into the book club thing?

I was an English teacher for 10 years. Then my husband and I started moving around a lot, so I was always somewhere new, and I had my two babies. So wherever we lived, I started a book club. It was a way to get to know people. In 1993, I got hired by Davis Kidd, the bookstore that used to be here in Nashville. I was with them for 17 years, until the store closed. I founded the book clubs over there. You know, it’s funny — the management was reluctant to let me start book clubs at the store. They weren’t sure it would work. But it did. People loved it. Anyway, after David Kidd closed, I was out of work for 11 months. Then Karen and Ann picked me up!

For those with the job of picking book club selections for their own club: Are there any types of books that just don’t do well as book club selections? Or types of books that can be reliably counted on to be a hit? Or is looking for “types” of books beside the point?

I would say it’s not so much a type-of-book thing, as it’s the types of people. There are two subjects I almost always avoid, and those are religion and politics. I mean, once in a while, if we’re having a discussion and a particular point comes up that involves politics or religion, we’ll deal with it and then move away from it. Most people are just not amenable to opening up and listening to different opinions when it comes to those two topics. Their gut is involved. But that’s my book club. In your book club, if people say, “We really want to read this book about something religious or political — and some of us might hate it and some of us might love it — but we really want to read it,” then OK. Whatever is going to please the members is what’s going to make a successful book choice.

It can be really interesting to choose a “stretch” book now and then. For example, if you know that everyone in your group, when they go home at night, reads very popular books, you might say, “Hey, let’s read something that’s not on the bestseller list next time.” It’s good to try things you might not normally read.

Can you think of a couple of books from our book club here at Parnassus in the past couple of years that have generated especially enthusiastic discussion or even disagreement?

jacobYes! One of the best in that way was Defending Jacob by William Landay. The main question the book raises is: How far would you go to defend your child? Would you cover up a murder? It’s a suspense-filled read. Most people in this club are parents or have nieces or nephews or — well, everyone has at least been a child — so it’s an issue that cuts pretty close to home. The book The Dinner by Herman Koch deals with the same themes. Another really good discussion we had was on The Round House by Louise Erdrich. Such wonderful quality writing and family feelings there. And what made the discussion good was the suspense.

Sometimes a book club can fall apart because it’s tough for people to make it to the meetings. What advice do you have for people on planning the timing of their book club gatherings — specifically regarding how often to meet, how many books to read per year, etc?

Mostly when I meet with groups about how to set up a book club, I say do whatever is going to fit the needs of the particular group. Most clubs do well meeting monthly. But if you have, say, senior citizens or folks who are not as involved in other things, you could meet more often, like every two weeks. If you’re a group of busy working people, a dinner meeting might work great. Or it might not. Maybe try Sunday afternoon if that’s a time that’s good for most of your group. If your members are parents with kids who are in school, maybe 10 a.m. on a weekday morning would work. 

One key ingredient is building in social time and agreeing on how much of it you want to have. Make sure it’s enough. And if the meetings aren’t flowing quite right, address the issue up front with the whole group present: Hey, too many people are not reading the book. Or we seem to be getting off track from the discussion, or we seem to have a tendency to talk over each other, or a few members are dominating the discussion. Are we OK with that? Let’s see if we can make this a situation where we all can be happy.

Any advice on how to exit a book club gracefully if it’s not your cup of tea?

Here at our Parnassus Book Club, it’s easy — if it’s not your thing, just don’t come. But with a bunch of friends or neighbors in your own book club, it’s tough. Again, if you have the strength to say at the end of a meeting that you’re not happy, that’s almost always better than stewing over it and just drifting off. I might just say to people, “Hey, I really like you all, but I don’t know if this club is meeting what I want in a book club. Maybe some of you feel that way, or maybe I’m a lone wolf, but I want to read more classics…” — or easier books, or hard books, or whatever it is you’re wanting and not getting. Put it on yourself. But not confronting it doesn’t really work. Then it’s always a thorn.

What’s coming up for the Parnassus Book Club

Well, in addition to our regular book club, we’re launching the classics club next month. We did a book club devoted to classics at Davis Kidd, and several people have approached me about bringing it back. So we’re kicking it off with Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. I can’t wait.

Thanks, Kathy!

The first selection for our Classics Book Club is…

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JOIN THE CLUB – Check our events calendar for book club times. Each book has a few different dates to choose from —  just come to the one that suits you best. (It’s not a continued conversation from one date to the next, so you don’t have to attend multiple times for each book.)

…OR LET US HELP WITH YOURS – Want some advice on what your book club should read next? Kathy’s at your service! Email her at, and she’d be happy to meet with you and your members about how to get your club going or what to put on your reading list. We are also glad to give book clubs a 10% discount off your club selections — just make sure to register your book club with us and let us know how many books we should order in for you.

Related reading:

Parnassus Classics Book Club – Monday, November 10 at 10am or 6:30pm
ISBN-13: 9780394757681
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Vintage, 8/1988

Ordinary Grace (Paperback)

Parnassus Book Club – Monday, October 13 at 6:30pm;
Wednesday, October 15 at 6:30pm; Thursday, October 16 at 10am
ISBN-13: 9781451645859
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Atria Books, 3/2014

Quiet Dell (Hardcover)

Parnassus Book Club – Monday, November 17 at 6:30pm;
Tuesday, November 18 at 6:30pm; Thursday, November 20 at 10am
ISBN-13: 9781439172537
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Scribner, 10/2013

ISBN-13: 9780345533661
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Bantam, 9/2013

The Dinner (Paperback)

ISBN-13: 9780385346856
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Hogarth, 11/2013

ISBN-13: 9780062065254
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Harper Perennial, 9/2013