Book Clubs: The Muffia v. Oprah


The Muffia is a very successful book club. We began reading books as a group in 2001 and we still have most of our original members; we’ve also added a few. Of course there’s more than one type of book club and when I started researching what makes a club work, I discovered a lot of suggestions that I didn’t think very helpful–starting with Oprah’s. But giving “O” the benefit of the doubt, I’ve listed each of her suggestions below, followed by a comment. Take a look and then send me your responses, along with your own Do’s and Don’ts for book club success (200 words or less) by posting on my Facebook page:  I’ll select a few of the submissions for an upcoming book club post. “Like” my page and you’ll be entered in a drawing to receive a free, signed copy of The Muffia (that’s the book, not us).

Oprah’s Rules Re-muffed:

1. Think Outside The Book

Liven up the discussion by reading plays or literary magazines that feature essays, art and short stories.

Muffcomment: If you’ve selected your members wisely, you’ll never be short of things to talk about, even when no one likes the book. One of the best, most fun and hilarious book club gatherings we ever had was talking about LAY OF THE LAND, which most of us hated! Actually we didn’t hate it, we just decided it was written for men experiencing prostrate cancer.

 2. Share The Busywork

Leaving one person in charge for too long will lead to her burning out. Instead, every few months, rotate the responsibility of hosting and setting the date for the meeting.

Muffcomment: Huh? I don’t even understand this one. The Muffia rotates every gathering. We’ve never had any issues with burning out and we all clamor to host because hosting means we get to pick the book and don’t have to drive. Whenever we finish a meeting, we all chime in with “Who’s next?” “ Am I next?” “I haven’t gone in a long time…”

 3. Seduce With Food

A juicy three-cheese lasagna can help the discussion of the driest novel.

Muffcomment: Food and drink are mightily important to the Muffs and we all make an effort to have delicious dishes and yummy desserts. Some of us like potluck but others prepare every course and only ask the other Muffs to bring wine. And Oprah, come on, every novel has sections that aren’t dry. But this doesn’t mean lasagna won’t help those too.

4. And Yet: Never Serve Vegetarian Pâté

Muffcomment: Sorry Oprah, I don’t know who’s been preparing your veggie pâté but the Muffs can’t abide this rule. We have a vegan in The Muffia and she knows her way around some vegetables. Sometimes she brings her own food, never criticizing the rest of us for consuming animal protein. At our last gathering, the meal was almost entirely vegetarian and we all thought it was stunningly delicious. We discussed THE FAULT IN OUR STARS—meatless—and no one minded.

 5. Keep Mortie Out Of It

Your cousin Mortie from Montana may be in town for the week, but that doesn’t mean he should come with you to book club. Members have a relationship with one another that changes when new people enter.

Muffcomment: Our club is all women and we do not permit men. Once we had a male author appearance because we read his book THE TENDER BAR, and one of the Muffs knew him from high school. Occasionally we have a female guest but ONLY if every Muff says yes and ONLY if this guest has read the book! Uncle Mortie would never be allowed to come to a Muff meeting. But Aunt Mildred might be if she read the book.

6. No Books Longer Than 450 Pages


Muffcomment: Some Muffs are big readers and have chosen weighty tomes with no harmful after effects. But you know what? It’s not the end of the world if people don’t finish the book. There’s still a lot to talk about. But when a Muff shows up without having read the whole thing, there are going to be a few spoiler alerts, which are the penalty for not having finished. The thing is, she KNOWS this so never gets bent outta shape. Also, some big books read fast and some short books read slow, so this Muff thinks this rule’s gotta go, or at least be modified for every club.

7. Set Up An Online Calendar

The crucial reason being to avoid endless group emails from everybody asking really annoying, repetitive, typo-ridden questions about what night they’re supposed to meet and what they’re supposed to read.

Muffcomment: This could actually be a good idea, Oprah, and The Muffia might try it. The problem is, it requires people to remember the website, their passwords, etc. Truthfully, most of us would rather put up with the emails and besides, there’s usually some juicy gossip or news that comes with the emails providing interest, if not outright joy and laughter, never possible from an online calendar.

 8. Stay On The Same Page—Literally

When reading classics, plays or foreign translations make sure everyone buys or borrows the same edition. Otherwise, you’ll spend the whole night flipping around trying to locate the paragraph or quote under discussion.

Muffcomment: This could be sensible but our club isn’t anal (doh!). Sometimes one of us will read a passage out loud but the rest don’t “read along.” Only once has a Muff who read the online version been frustrated about finding something a Muff was citing in her hard copy, and that was over her frustration with Kkindle insofar as you don’t have a sense of how deep into a book you are in the same way you do with seeing a book bisected by a book mark.

9. Beware The Book-Talk Tyrant

She’s frequently the most organized and best read of the group, which everybody appreciates, but she’s also the bossiest and, at times, dismissive of others’ ideas. She picks the book. She picks the page of the book to discuss. She picks the chair that’s smack in the middle of the circle and makes everybody feel as if they have to raise their hands to make a comment or go to the bathroom.

Muffcomment: Get her outa there! No one likes a blow hard. With the Muffia, it’s generally the hostess, (who we’ve established changes every time) who “moderates,” and kicks off our discussion however she chooses. No Muff turns into a tyrant when she’s a hostess. Some of us are more vocal than others, true, but we encourage everyone to speak. It just wouldn’t dawn on any of us to monopolize but if someone started to, we are comfortable enough with each other to say. “Done yet?”

10. Once a Year, Select a Book From Childhood

Like CHARLOTTE’S WEB and LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. Reliving why we began reading in the first place is a great way to get everybody motivated to keep on reading.

Muffcomment: This Muff is a little nugatory on this suggestion. It’s one thing to reread a YA novel like HUNGER GAMES but in The Muffia Book Club, we tend to want to read adult fiction so dredging up NANCY DREW isn’t going to make anyone happy. This concern can be managed by putting your book club together wisely from the get-go and by having a mission statement that defines who you are. Maybe you’re the “Ex-military wives of Ft. Lauderdale who read childhood classics?” If so, then CHARLOTTE’S WEB and LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE are a great fit.

11. Don’t Lose a Member Who Feels Too Stressed Out to Host

The appetizers! The vacuuming! The rounding up of all those chairs! Every now and then, meet at a bar and toast your selection with a literary-themed cocktail like, say, a Great Gatsby. 

Muffcomment: Stress happens and the Muffs are always up for a cocktail. But guess what? There are workarounds. In the Muffia, we accommodate. Hostesses swap order. Some host at another Muff’s house if she has family staying or she’s getting her floors redone or whatever. Not a big deal. Again, it gets back to choosing your group wisely, genuinely liking the people in your book club and having some flexibility because being in a book club is supposed to be fun.

 12. Book Club Is Not Group Therapy

A member who loves a memoir about drug addiction because she was a drug addict (and then spends the whole two hours talking about her struggles) or a member who hates a novel about co-workers in a corporation because she works for a corporation (and then spends two hours talking about her boss) have missed the point—and taken over everyone else’s evening.

Muffcomment: OMG, I have to agree with Oprah on this one. The Muffs have read GLASS CASTLE, WHAT REMAINS, DON’T LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT and a few other memoirs but we do space them out (not that there’s a plan to do this; it’s just worked out that way) and so far no Muff has monopolized the discussion because she was abused, drugged, poor, divorced, bad in school, raped, had an abortion, etc., like the memoirist (even if she’s experienced something similar). Why? Because it would be rude. Pick your book club members wisely and there’ll be no problem.

13. Take December Off

Nobody has time to finish a novel during the holidays. Have everyone bring in a short, memorable piece to read out loud, like a poem, a few paragraphs from a novel or article, or even a meaningful personal letter.

Muffcomment: Or skip the holiday meeting. Book club is not a college course with a set reading list to be completed on a certain date. Usually book club is an excuse for a party. Real life Muff Michelle started us out over our first holiday season together with what she called the BCWBBWSO gathering; that is the Book Club Without Book But With Significant Other—Michelle has a “tendency to make acronyms out of everything” (TMAOE). This gathering happens around the holidays and has nothing to do with any book.) So yes, take time off during the holidays.

14. One Dog Memoir Per Year

We all love dogs. We all even love when the dog dies at the end of the book—as the dogs so often do—which causes us to sob hopelessly all over the final pages. But too many dogs ruin the heartbreak (and joy) we’re after.

Muffcomment: Agreed—we all love dogs and we love dog memoirs BUT they are generally too sad, too short and/or too easy a read to be a legitimate Muffia choice so it wouldn’t dawn on any of us to select one. It’s not that we Muffs must always have subject matter that challenges us (some Muffs don’t like being challenged at all) but we appreciate a book that takes us to a different place and which, stylistically, has some artistic merit (though of course we may disagree on that point). Dog memoirs, cat memoirs and even horse memoirs, are likely to fall short.  We did read THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE and that had dogs in it but it was really about the people. That’s our kind of story.

 At a time in our world when there is so much divisiveness and conflict, with ad hominem attacks hurled at those who disagree with us, it is wonderful to be in a book club filled with sensitive, involved, caring and intelligent women who make the exchange of ideas–however much we disagree–a joy. We Muffs still love each other when we close the covers of (or switch off) a book that half of us liked and half of us didn’t. Each “side” tries to convince the other of why the book did or didn’t work and at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s right because when it comes to art, there is no right. What the Muffia succeeds in doing and what I think might be the goal for any successful book club is that members leave a gathering feeling stimulated, enlightened, validated and, hopefully, well-fed.

Read Oprah’s ideas yourself here: