Book clubs are full of passionate readers who go out and buy books throughout the year. They are always on the hunt for new titles to read, and are recommendation engines for the family and friends outside of the club. In Ask A Book Club, we help you better understand how book clubs find the books they read, and where they talk about books beyond their club. We look at individual book clubs to learn more about what they look for in a book and how groups of passionate readers come together to choose their titles.
Today, we’re talking to Anne Haag about her globe-trotting book club.
About the book club
A friend decided she wanted to start a book club in the model of her grandfather’s group, which meets monthly and reads a book focusing on a different country each time. So, she invited a few friends to join, and it webbed out from there. Quite a few of our members were born or raised in other countries. We have members from Indonesia, Spain, Canada, England, and Ireland, so we have a variety of international perspectives present at each meeting. There are about 10 of us, all in our mid-20s. We live in Chicago and meet once a month.
We try to read a book by an author from a different country each month. A lot of the books we read involve some kind of historical conflict or element tied to a certain place – for example, the slave trade’s impact on Ghana in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, or religious fundamentalism as it manifests in Pakistan in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. By focusing on a different country each time, we are able to expand our understanding of global conflicts, and how they influence our world today. We do occasionally indulge in lighter works when we need a break. Last summer, for example, we read Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan.
We read quite a few works in translation. We skew towards fiction, but have read nonfiction, like Caitlin Doughty’s exploration of death across different cultures, From Here to Eternity. Most of the titles we’ve read were published within the last 20 years. We try to stick to shorter books; usually around 200 pages. I am guilty of not finishing more than one book when it lost my interest. We read The Double by Jose Saramago, and quite a few others joined me in the “easily disinterested” ranks.
Finding new titles
I always look for ideas in the New Yorker, specifically the short reviews they publish at the end of each issue’s featured book review. That has come up previously as a source others have used as well. In fact, two of us recommended Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada after reading about in the New Yorker. Book reviews in the New York Times are another common source, as well as Goodreads. Sometimes our ideas come from reading about current events and seeking out related literature, often just by Googling.
Members bring up titles they’re interested in reading at the end of each meeting. Typically, there’s a title that stands out as interesting to the group as a whole, so we pick that one. If more than one sounds interesting, we typically just agree to read them in following months. We aren’t particularly organized – we have a group email thread, and that’s about it. Really, we don’t even keep a list of books we’ve read.
- Homegoing (2016) by Yaa Gyasi, Vintage Books
- The Door (1987) by Magda Szabo, New York Review Books
- Moonbath (2017) by Yanick Lahens, Deep Vellum
- Crazy Rich Asians (2013) by Kevin Kwan, Anchor Books
- Hotel Silence (2018) by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Grove Atlantic
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.