Derek McIver, co-founder of The Boston Gay Men's Book Club, advises that choosing the right books and using social media to connect with others are key to starting a new reading group. With a wide-ranging list of books from their first year as a group, Derek offers great advice for discussion and, in particular, how to approach graphic novels if you're unfamiliar with the genre.
Congratulations on your group's one year anniversary! Tell us how it all started.
Last year, my partner and I wondered why in Boston - an educated and fairly liberal-minded city - there wasn't a book club for gay men. We didn't have to think too long before we decided to start one. Thanks to the magical powers of Facebook, we started the club and it has been a huge success. The Boston Gay Men's Book Club first met in July, 2008, at a church in Harvard Square (which is Cambridge, not Boston). Writing this, I can hardly believe that we've been together for a year. It feels like so much less time has passed! The group has evolved into a really great group, too. We currently have about 6 "regulars" but there will often be more floating in and out. We are an eclectic bunch ranging from students to professionals to the retired. We all come from different backgrounds and regions and get along great. Some members will meet outside of the group, sometimes getting drinks after the meetings or getting together for social events. We are open to reading anything that would be of interest to gay men, so our books often have gay themes or gay authors, but we do not restrict ourselves to them.
How do you run a typical meeting?
Our meetings "officially" begin at 7:30, but the better part of the first 10 to 15 minutes is spent catching up and gossiping. So much for northern punctuality! Typically, either my partner or I will start off by asking some questions about the month's book, but if someone else in the group suggested a book, they will often lead the talk. From there, we go around (we sit in a circle) and share our thoughts and reflections on the piece. The discussion continues organically, with one thought building upon a prior one, other questions get asked, and so on for about an hour or an hour and a half. I'd be wrong to say that we don't ever veer off topic, but when we do, it's usually, though sometimes remotely, related to the book. For example, the story might remind us of another story, and then we might recount the other story.
Your selections are so eclectic! From James Baldwin to graphic novels, to a biography of Alan Turing… Would you share a list of your recent selections with our readers?
Yeah, I'm so happy that the books we've read have been so diverse. We don't restrict ourselves to any genre or period or anything. I don't like limitations like that. Our goal from the get-go has been simple: to endeavor to read books of interest to gay men. This has not only meant stories with gay characters, themes, and authors, but also biographies, cultural analyses, and essays.
As you noted, we have read James Baldwin - Giovanni's Room was actually the first book we read, and our most recent book was The Man Who Knew Too Much, a biography of Alan Turing. While people didn't enjoy that book so much, everyone was so interested to learn about someone none of us really knew anything about. (Without Alan Turing, I might not be sending this email to you now). Some of the other recent books we've read are Stephen Fry's memoir, Moab is My Washpot and Will Fellows' A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture. Before that we read some Andrew Sullivan, David Sedaris, Paul Golding, and Mary Renault.
How do you select your books?
We usually have a conversation at the end of a meeting, when necessary, to decide on upcoming books, typically picking 2 or 3 at a time. We once used an online poll, but I don't think that it was any more efficient than a short group discussion. We're happy to take suggestions. Actually, at our last meeting someone mentioned that he wanted to read Gregory Maguire's Wicked, so I told him it was a great idea and suggested that October would be an appropriate month for it. (I was actually very excited about his suggestion since I've wanted to read Wicked for years.)
Our favorite book, hands down, was Baldwin's Giovanni's Room. No contest. It's such a beautiful book! David Sedaris' When You Are Engulfed in Flames was also popular, especially because we encouraged our members to listen to the audio recording, read by the author himself, so that we could hear the story in his voice. It really brought the stories alive.
That's a great idea – suggesting an audio recording, especially for Sedaris. So which books have generated the most interesting discussions?
Surprisingly (or perhaps not), the books we don't like tend to bring on the most interesting conversations. One of our first books - the second maybe? - was Andrew Tobias's The Best Little Boy in the World. Andrew Tobias is a pen name for John Reid, but if you ask me, Mr. Reid probably shouldn't have revealed his real name or associated himself with the book. The book is autobiographical and recounts his story of coming out as a gay man in the 1970s. Since the subject of the book lived in Boston, many of us in the group enjoyed reading about various locales in our city and some of the – ahem - older members of the group even remembered certain places and erstwhile hangouts. That aspect of the book was nice. But, we couldn't tolerate how poorly the book was written or get past how, well, boring it was. So most of our discussion was spent ranting about it. The guy who recommended the book mentioned that it was influential to him as he struggled with coming out. I cannot and should not discount that - the process can be painful and lonely and any kind of role model is helpful when going through that. But, I can safely say the group prefers more substantive material. Plus, Giovanni's Room is a tough act to follow. Anyway, the point is that yes, some of our best, or rather some of our liveliest, discussions stem from the books that we don't like, but we always try to find the silver lining.
You recently discussed The Sandman, vol. 5, a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman – how did that go?
Yes, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Volume 5: A Game of You was a great addition to our reading list. The guy who recommended the book is a bit on the nerdy side (I don't think he'll be offended by my saying so), and is very well-read in all areas, but has a particular sweet spot for graphic novels. He convinced us it would be a good choice. The Club was sort of divided on the book. For one thing, thematically speaking, it was very different from any other book we'd read. Neil Gaiman is not gay, and the lead character, Barbie, isn't either. However, her best friend is a transvestite and there are also some lesbian characters. Those facts, though, aren't central to the story. Also, a couple of our members found the story to be a bit gory. It's one thing to read about violence, but to see it illustrated brings it to another level. I'd say overall the book was a hit. It was fun to read, quicker than other books, and for many of us it was the first or at least one of the first graphic novels we had read.
I think a lot of book clubs are curious about graphic novels, but aren't sure how to approach them. What advice would you offer for leading the discussion?
The guy who recommended it led the discussion and started by describing the evolution of graphic novels, talking about the comic code, etc. Learning the background was great and any groups looking to include graphic novels should take the time to discuss it in order to understand the genre more. They also shouldn't be afraid. Graphic novels are not always for kids. They have very adult story lines and can be a refreshing change of pace.
What books are coming up on your reading schedule soon?
We all desired a return to novels since we've been reading a bunch of nonfiction lately (and Gaiman thrown in there, too). For September we'll look at E.M. Forster's Maurice. I've never read any Forster, but am kind of excited about it. As far as I know, the book was written early on (or at least well within the limits of) in his career, but was published posthumously because of its "racy" content. It's supposed to be pretty progressive, treating a same-sex relationship as a normal occurrence, rather than condemning it as many thinkers in Forster's time did. In October we'll move on to Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. I'm a HUGE Wizard of Oz fan (as so many of us queens are), so I'm pretty amped about it. I should probably get a headstart, though, since I know that reading Maguire can require some heavy lifting.
Your group has a Facebook page (with over 80 members!) – how is Facebook instrumental in building and maintaining your group?
I don't think our group would exist were it not for Facebook. That was how we started the group and how it kept growing. My partner and I put the page up, shared it with our own networks, and the rest was Social Media magic. I honestly wish that I was a bit more proactive about promoting the group, but Facebook has proven to be so helpful. Somehow, our group has been added to community calendars and other book club pages. I might say Facebook helped us with that, but it could have also been the goodwill of our members. I also created a Manhunt account for the group, and some members have come from there. Reaching out via Social Media can be so effective. It's a free and pretty non-committal way to start a club and generate interest.
Why do you think men are reluctant to join reading groups, or start their own? Do you think this is changing?
Back in May I attended the Book Expo at the Javits Center in New York. I went for work, but snuck into a panel discussion on book clubs to see what others were doing. I can't say that I was too shocked to see that the panel was comprised totally of women 50+ years old, but I was surprised to see so few men in the audience. I can't explain this. Some might say that some women, particularly the stay-at-home sort, have more time for something like a book club. But I don't like that logic. I know of plenty stay-at-home dads, or retired men, or whoever that have time to commit to a book club.
How would you advise men who are interested in starting a group?
I think that reading a collection of books that will interest the group is most important. If guys want to form a group to read about sports personalities or war heroes or beer, then they should. There will probably be at least three or four other people in their area with similar interests. They should also find a meeting place where they'll be comfortable, too. We, for example, are very happy meeting in the library room of a church in Harvard Square, but I've heard of other groups meeting in bars or even someone's living room.
A Book Club should not be a chore, it should be something you want to do and should be full of books and discussions that interest you. People might be afraid of the term "Book Club" since it's associated with Oprah or campy romance novels or other "womanly" things. Call it what you will, and do with it what you wish. Reading groups are a great excuse to read some of those books you could never get around to and keep you engaged with literature.
Excellent advice! Thanks, Derek. Congratulations again on your first year.
Visit The Boston Gay Men's Book Club's Facebook page!
This Q&A first ran in August 2009