Growing up, I always thought of reading as a solitary activity. It was what I did at recess instead of playing with the other kids, my escape from the homework I didn’t want to do, and my excuse not to take up a sport. (Who needed adventures of your own when you had books?) And beyond needing my parents to take me to the library, it was yet another thing that I could do independently from a young age.
But over the years I found through in-class “book groups” — and more importantly, online fandom activity, i.e. Tumblr and Goodreads — that I actually quite enjoy discussing books that I’ve read or am currently reading. (Blogging is a social activity, of course, but there’s some degree of removal: comments on your review, or even your periodic GR updates, don’t tend to lead to in-depth discussion.)
So I recently joined the YA Buddy Readers’ Corner on Goodreads, and I’ve been a member of Howl’s Moving Book Club since its inception last November. Having spent the past few months doing a mix of group and solitary reads, I have a lot of thoughts on how they compare.
Book Clubs vs. Buddy Reads
You’ve probably heard of, and maybe even participated in, a book club: a group of people who read the same book around the same time and discuss it. They might meet in person every week or every month, or chat online; they might set a certain number of chapters to read every week, or allow everyone to read at their own pace. (Howl’s Moving Book Club does the latter — since we pick books through member nominations and votes, there are usually people who have already read the book, and as with any group some are faster readers than others, so we set up our Slack channels to hide spoilers but allow everyone to discuss wherever they’re at.) The setup is based on the group of people rather than the book; after the current read is finished, another will be chosen and the process continues.
A buddy read, on the other hand, is typically a smaller group (as few as two; the largest I’ve seen is 4-5) who arrange to read a single book or series together. This tends to be a much shorter commitment, though if you hit it off you can certainly arrange more buddy reads with the same person(s)! You might find that you discuss in greater detail than with a book club, since depending on your agreement you might set specific times when you’re both reading the book and discussing as you go, or you might check in periodically; or you may find that your partner(s) doesn’t really have much to say about the book.
Benefits of Group Reads
Discovering new reads. Participating in group reads has introduced me to lots of books I might never have discovered on my own. Sure, there’s Goodreads and other book bloggers, but that’s the other extreme: there are so many recommendations out there that it can be difficult to know where to start. Group reads offer fewer choices, which paradoxically makes it easier to settle on one. (Or two, or three…)
Getting through my To-Be-Read list. On the other hand, buddy reads have also helped me commit to my reading order. While I do read other books in between and concurrently with my group reads, I’ve committed to reading certain books on certain days; this reduces the time I spend paging indecisively through my eBook collection between books and helps me get through titles already on my TBR (especially when they belong to a series, because I have a bad habit of moving on after the first book and forgetting to come back to it).
More deliberate reading. With books I’ve already read, I get to vicariously experience it for the first time again, and see the narrative through a different lens — whether that’s through my reading partners’ opinions/interpretations or the simple fact that I’m reading more slowly, keeping an eye out for interesting things to discuss. With first-time reads, I’m motivated not to skim to get to exciting parts, but rather to keep an eye out for interesting discussion points, or even to stop and think about what might happen next or what a character might be thinking.
Drawbacks of Group Reads
Too much commitment? If you’re in a buddy-read group like the one I mentioned earlier, you may find yourself agreeing to too many buddy reads, and feeling stressed out as a result. Or you may feel pressured to finish a book that you don’t like, or that the need to discuss/analyze your reading feels too much like schoolwork and takes the fun out of reading.
Discussion vs. disagreement. I don’t know about you, but I get really attached to and defensive of certain characters and interpretations. While I’m not opposed to a good debate, sometimes you’ll find yourself in fundamental disagreement with the rest of your reading group — and when it gets personal, as reading can so easily be, there’s potential for hurt feelings.
Pacing. Even as early as elementary school, I’d finish the book the first day I brought it home, then spent the next month and half trying to remember where we left off so I didn’t tempt my teachers to make good on their promises to hang you from the ceiling by your shoelaces for spoilers. And I still find it difficult to stick to a strict pacing schedule, which sometimes makes me feel guilty or worry about spoiling something — but this is avoidable through clear communication before you begin!
At the end of the day, your reading experience really just depends on what you make of it. Establishing your expectations — e.g., how detailed and how frequent you want your discussions to be, whether you’re setting up a reading schedule, whether it’s okay to opt out partway through if you don’t like the book — and setting boundaries for yourself — e.g., the maximum number of group reads you’ll participate in at once, whether you’ll continue to argue or instead disengage when the discussion takes a touchy turn — can help make your group read a more positive experience. But of course you’re not obligated to participate in any, or to continue participating if you’re uncomfortable for any reason, and you can make the choice to quit at any point.
And hey, if you love the idea of group reads but don’t want to ruin your literary enjoyment with social interaction, you can always start a book club for one.
If you’ve participated in any kind of group read, how was your experience?
Do you have a preference between individual reads, buddy reads, and book clubs? If you haven’t, would you want to try it out?