HOW BOOK CLUBS CAN HELP FAMILIES GET ON THE SAME PAGE

Reading together offers a novel way to stay connected


About three years ago, Barbara Casson, now 65, observed that while other families did activities together, her small family didn’t have many occasions for shared activities, especially with relatives in different states.

“I really think that’s important for families to have common experiences, not just when you get together and ask a series of questions like you’re being interviewed,” said Casson, who lives in Columbus, Ohio. “We were never going to travel together.”

Fortunately, they found another way to connect. “One of the kids said we should do a book club because we all love to read,” said Casson, who’s an English teacher-turned-school principal.

Casson and her son, daughter-in-law and daughter each chose a book to discuss in their club. That Christmas, they exchanged their book club picks as gifts. (Casson’s ex-husband later joined the book club; her daughter-in-law took a hiatus during graduate school, then rejoined.)

Family Book Clubs

Meeting in person, on Skype or by phone as needed, the family has discussed a variety of booksincluding humor, history and fantasy novels.

“The best thing about a book club is it introduces you to things it wouldn’t occur to you to read,” said Valerie Moore, 37, of Chicago. Moore is Casson’s daughter-in-law and is pursuing her Master’s  in library science.

“The process of deciding what a family book club might look like could be lots of fun.”

Casson admits that they haven’t loved every book; even her son admits his chosen title on the history of cotton read like a textbook.) But the club has sparked more interesting conversations. “It gave us a lot of things to talk about separately from ‘How’s your job? How’s the dog?’” Casson said. “I’ve always enjoyed my kids intellectually.”

For instance, The Round House by Louse Erdrich prompted discussions about Native American tribal law, an area the group hadn’t previously considered. “We’re getting to talk about all kinds of different things that never would have come up otherwise,” Moore said.

Other families have formed inter-generational book clubs, too.

Several years ago, my brother suggested that my mom and I read the same books and discuss them as a way to stay connected since we’re scattered across the country. Our long-distance book club has ebbed and flowed as we’ve navigated job changes, moves and other life events. But we’ve read and discussed fiction and nonfiction titles by Harper Lee, Jhumpa Lahiri, Robert Kiyosaki and Sheryl Sandberg, among others.

Benefits of Family Members Reading Together

Tobi Jacobi, a professor of English and director of the Community Literacy Center at Colorado State University, has participated in a mother-daughter book club with her daughter through her public library. The two also read and discussed a book by Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Prize laureate, on their own.

“That was really fabulous, because at the time my daughter was grappling with ‘What are the limitations on girls?’ and there are so many mixed messages on what girls can do and what they can’t do,” Jacobi said. “It really made space for us to be able to talk about that through Malala’s experience.”

Jacobi has also worked with community partners to run inter-generational book clubs at places like GED (General Education Development) and ESL (English as a Second Language) centers for people who might not view themselves as readers. For those groups, taking literacy outside of school provides “access to a reading experience that wasn’t connected to a grade,” Jacobi said.

As part of Jacobi’s other literacy work, an inter-generational book club through a group called Grandparents Raising Grandchildren encouraged grandparents, some of whom were thrust into a parental role due to issues such as drug addiction, to read with their grandkids.

“That gives a way to flatten the relationship that might exist where one person is in more of an authority role,” Jacobi. “There, the kids’ voices might be valued.”

Stretching the Limits on Choosing Books

In families that don’t struggle with literacy, grandparents or other relatives still might enjoy revisiting classics or exploring new literary worlds as they connect with younger generations. If a book club includes kids, Jacobi recommended. give them input on the books chosen and the parameters around the book club.

“The process of deciding what a family book club might look like could be lots of fun,” she said. “Are there limits on the kinds of books or can we stretch our understanding of what makes a book? Lots of people feel that classics are important to read, but what about moving into another format like poetry or graphic novels?” (The latter has gotten very popular with young readers.)

Once you’ve chosen a book, don’t assume you have to buy multiple copies.

“There are lots of opportunities to check out books in a group way,” Jacoby said. “Our public library has sets of fifteen books that you can check out, so it does become more accessible.”

Even if you’re not keen on someone else’s chosen title, it might surprise you, by opening up a new author or genre. “We all fall into our habits of things we enjoy reading and that’s not bad,” said Moore. “But it doesn’t expand what we might be interested in.”

Susan Johnston Taylor

By Susan Johnston Taylor

Susan Johnston Taylor of Austin, Texas, has written for publications including The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Entrepreneur, Fast Company and U.S. News & World Report.

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