The Importance of New Members in Book Groups

Time for a little lesson in group dynamics: Great book groups are a joke.

They are the kind of joke where a rabbi, a Martian, and a kindergarten teacher walk into a bar. As book group leader, you’re the bartender. Before you open for business, you can do what you can to create the right space for a memorable evening. You can put the chairs in just the right configuration and set out the perfect bar snacks. You can decide if extra entertainment is needed. But you can’t control everything; you’ll need to make the best of whomever walks in that night.

Throughout the night, you’ll hustle to make sure everyone stays happy. If it’s quiet, you’ll stoke the action. If it’s noisy, you’ll tone things down. What you’re serving that night is important. If the special is a watered down mix of badly matched spirits, or a cheap knockoff brand masquerading as the good stuff, the bar will empty out early. But ultimately, the good bar in our good bar joke is about the people, not the drinks.

As bartender, you’ll make sure that the regulars are happy. They’re the core of your business and you want them to return night after night. But despite everything that you do to create the perfect atmosphere, for a truly memorable evening, it will come back to the rabbi, the Martian, and the kindergarten teacher. Or the philosopher, the chorus girl, and the sherpa. Or the umpire and the traveling salesman. Or the donkey and the piccolo player.

Whomever your surprise guests, don’t turn them away from the bar.  They can make a lot of trouble, but their diversity adds an element of surprise to your familiar mix. Without them, the joint that’s jumping this week will get stale over time, and only a few loyal, weary souls will keep coming back, talking about the bar in its glory days and trying to block out its current decrepitude. The bar won’t stay open without regulars, but then again you won’t hear many good bar jokes about the first regular, the second regular, and the third regular.

You’re the bartender, so it’s your joke. It’s up to you to integrate the witch doctor and the ballerina, the Lithuanian and the talking dog. Some of them will come back another night, others will make one bizarre appearance that the regulars will enjoy talking about for years, but if you’re going to get to the punch line, you need them.

Don’t ignore them, or the joke is on you.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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