Why So Few Men Join Book Groups

Whenever book group leaders get together to chat, eventually the same perplexing question arises, “What can be done to get men (or more men) to join our groups?”  After over 30 years of leading book groups, I can state with great conviction that there are no new answers. 

Here are the time-honored techniques that seem to work:

Choose books to discuss that interest men.  That means, broadly speaking, books about sports, politics, history, crime, and making money.  Nonfiction seems to draw better than fiction.  And for the most part, books written by men — although a title like Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, might be the rare exception.  The subtitle reveals the appeal:  A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.  That could bring the boys in — even if it was penned by a female.

Why are men such reluctant participants, even when you are offering to discuss the type of books that seem tailor-made to suit them?  Here’s what I’ve learned, both from observation and from talking to other men:  guys generally do not like to share their feelings in public, especially in the presence of  a group composed mostly of members of the opposite sex; also, they aren’t greatly interested in minutely analyzing character and motivation, unless they happen to have a degree in psychology and have made this activity their life’s work; and finally, they aren’t comfortable in situations where they are outnumbered by ladies and where the leader of the group — that formidable person in charge — is  (Gadzooks!) a woman.

So if the leader is a man. perhaps you can get more men involved.  And it’s also an advantage if the would-be male participant knows the leader outside of the book group, in some other context — somehow, this promotes trust.  If a woman who is in the group  is able to persuade her husband to read the book and come to the discussion with her, the guy’s comfort level may be raised.  If the wife has a friend who can get her husband to come along as well, that’s another plus;  going into the session, both men know they won’t be the lone stranger.

In my opinion, having both sexes represented in a group frequently makes for a more stimulating discussion.  There’s something about the way men and women disagree and then sort out the differences that adds to the liveliness factor.  But in the end, I’m not sure it’s something we should agonize over.  Let whoever is interested in discussing the book come — and don’t worry about the rest of those darn people.  Most women don’t want to climb mountains or skydive — and nobody says anything about that.  It’s just the way it is.  So if the majority of males don’t want to discuss books — who cares?  Those of us who do enjoy it have a great time.  Those other guys?  They don’t know what they’re missing.



About the Author:

Ted Balcom lives in Arlington Heights, IL and conducts workshops on leading book discussions, about which he has also published a book: Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide (American Library Association, 1992).

16 Comments on "Why So Few Men Join Book Groups"

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  1. furntats@yahoo.com' David K. says:

    I read a ton of books. Several every week. But I don’t want someone else choosing what I read. Maybe that’s the male thing?

  2. rwb.bailey@gmail.com' R Bailey says:

    My local (largely if not exclusively female) book group discourages male participation.

  3. ckubala@columbiactlibrary.org' CarolK says:

    I like your take on this age old issue. You’re welcome to attend our book discussions anytime.

    I live vicariously through those adventure tales and have tandem sky dived. What a trip!

  4. craftycassandra@yahoo.com' Cassy says:

    I wonder what age males stop participating, because I haven’t noticed a lack of guys in my reading groups where we’re all around 14-20. In my opinion and experience there are some differences in what the guys want to do in a reading group. We get more participation when we do multiple books at once that have a common theme or when we do book reviews or book swaps rather than an actual group reading of a book (everyone brings a different book they’ve read and leads a review/discussion), or when we couple the book with some other activity (book + movie/convention/show/museum/etc.). Where you have your group meet seems to make a lot of difference as well. I agree the type of book matters, too, but I haven’t noticed anything about the gender of authors having anything to do with it! Subjects like sci-fi, paranormal, and book/TV tie-ins are the ones I can think of that were most popular with guys in my groups.

  5. bruceparsons46@bigpond.com.au' Bruce says:

    I began two book groups over time still actively involved in one and male

  6. cmps1@comcast.net' Debbie C says:

    I’m with David K. on this one. I read about 60-70 books a year, yet I have never joined a book club. I am very selective about what I read. I don’t want to read a book that I am not interested in just because my book club is reading it.

  7. jo.boutflower@yahoo.co.uk' Jo says:

    We’re a bookcrossing group and have at least as many men as women in the group. The bookcrossing approach means we talk about all and any book rather than having to read a set book. We also meet in the pub which probably helps too.

  8. treasuresandcrafts@gmail.com' T portlock says:

    My book club is called the misfits. Our book club is about 10 with half the group being male.
    We have been meeting for the past 4 1/2 years now. We read every subject.
    Since the whole group is a bunch of alpha’s the discussions are always interesting and informative. Honesty, I can not see myself being a part of a all woman bookclub. I will tell you we don’t read many romance novels. Let’s just say the last romance book we read was graphic in adult relations. When the guys explained the reality of the adult situations, it took all the romance out of that romance novel. I think I laughed till I cried.

  9. group.julia@gmail.com' Julia says:

    It may also be an age effect. My mother is in a book club and it is almost all women, but a lot of the women are older and widowed. Since women live longer, and it seems that more people join book clubs when they are retired and have the time, there may be just fewer men to draw from. I know this is true in the community where she lives, where many people go to retire.

  10. atodd@phpl.info' Alex says:

    I’m a male leader of a book club and sadly, still struggle to attract male members. Well, I struggle with one club – I have two meetings for the same title each month, one afternoon and one evening. The evening club has been in operation the longest, over 20 years. The afternoon club is much newer and has three men participating, one is a husband who (willingly and enthusiastically) attends with his wife. Another is a gentleman who uses the book club as therapy for his stroke recovery. We can understand what he says, but sometimes he struggles to find the right word. I think it’s win-win for both. The third man is the friend of the stroke victim. While they’re at the club, I think the wife gets some much needed time to herself.

    The risk of having more ‘male-centric’ titles, though is alienating the rest of the group. You’d have to have several such titles to get noticed, I think. Having one or two isolated in a year will get overlooked by those who don’t pay attention to book club going’s-on. So it’s a delicate balancing act to try and attract new folks (particularly men) and not drive away your current members with books they have no interest in.

  11. screenwritersdoitonpaper@yahoo.com' ace says:

    Well, Ted, I’m a woman and you just outlined all the reasons why *I* have no interest in joining a book club. I’m a voracious reader (everything from sci-fi to mystery to thriller to “literature” — as long as it has *some* sort of plot and is not just the kind of navel-gazing nonsense that’s encouraged by MFA programs) but I’ve never seen the point in getting together which a bunch of other people to pick the book (and my “feelings”) apart. Are people trying to re-create high school English classes?

    Then again, I love climbing mountains and would certainly skydive if the opportunity arose, so maybe I’m just a weird girl.

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