I Used To Hate Bookclubs But Now I Lead One

Pages Bookshop
5 min readFeb 5, 2021

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A personal essay by Jazmine Cooper, Pages’ Black Literature and Poetry Curator. See more of her work at jortavia.com, where this piece was originally published.

Jazmine, the author, and Pip, the resident feline advisor at Pages

When I earned my degree in English Literature from Wayne State University in 2017, I didn’t know that reading was no longer a pastime for the majority of the U.S. population, yet I knew from the bottom of my empty bank account and the embossed seal of my degree that reading was imperative. I had earned a whole degree in it. It was important. Throughout my college years I insisted on carrying my library of books to every dorm room and apartment I went to so that I could start lengthy, boozed conversations about capital L literature and the importance of subtext, but there was a problem. I hated book clubs.

I don’t read for opinionated responses, I read for context, uplift, thought-provoking discussions, perspective, sentences.

Book clubs were the bane of my existence and purpose. Book clubs were filled with Goodreads reviewers, telling other readers what they do and don’t like about a book they barely read, some reviews with opinions held so high above everyone else that other readers were automatically turned off from the book simply because they didn’t like the main character, or they didn’t like the setting. Opinions meant little to me and they still do. I don’t read for opinionated responses, I read for context, uplift, thought-provoking discussions, perspective, sentences.

Do I sound pretentious? Maybe, but hear me out. You’ve all been to those book clubs, you know, the ones where the book is rarely talked about and you leave the group with the book read thoroughly only to find out that Barbara’s prodigal sister — the one she hates — reminded her of the main character which is why she disliked the entire book. I’ve been to that group. I’ve sat through that group. I hated it, because that’s not what I came to discuss.

When I was given the chance to lead the Detroit chapter of Well-Read Black Girl Book Club, I was a little wary. The sound of a book club made me anxious because I… hated book clubs. I didn’t want to lead a group that only talked about how the voice was annoying but didn’t ask why. I didn’t want to choose a book only to have everyone tell me that they hated it just because it wasn’t exciting enough. I thought I was sure that my books would land across the room when I threw them in frustration and yell, “This is capital L LITERATURE for god’s sake! Respect the L!”

But I was pleasantly surprised.

I left the group feeling energized about the discussion as we talked about loneliness, forgiveness, the complicated relationships between daughter and father, and how mothers are people (despite what many people think) and sometimes fail to comfort.

In the Well-Read Black Girl Book Club, we discuss books written primarily by Black women. The first read I lead was The Mothers by Brit Bennett, a book that has been highly praised since its debut and was followed up by The Vanishing Half, which came out in 2020. I was scared about the discussion, but I was adamant to ask the right questions to my members about what they really thought about the book. To ask them ‘why’ when they asked a question proved to be an enriching and comforting move. I left the group feeling energized about the discussion as we talked about loneliness, forgiveness, the complicated relationships between daughter and father, and how mothers are people (despite what many people think) and sometimes fail to comfort. We talked about the way Brit Bennet used different narration techniques and why they were utilized in such a way, how redemption is not always immediate, and how grief does not necessarily get better with time. This is what I came to a book club to discuss. This is why I read.

Why don’t you like the narration? Why do you think the character is stupid? Don’t know what to say or ask, then listen first.

There is a list of books for the entire 2021 reading year, one book for each month. I curated each book to introduce authors that the group may or may not have read yet, or to read books with content that they wouldn’t have picked up on their own. In other words, I hoped that I curated books that will generate discussion beyond the page. In January we discussed An Untamed State by Roxane Gay and I barely asked any questions. The group was able to discuss their ideas about why the characters made their decisions, the role of trauma in fiction, and if knowing the author’s background is imperative to understanding text. The answers varied, were complicated, were challenged. I was challenged in my thinking, I gained new perspectives. This is what I came for. This is why I read.

If I were to give college me some advice about joining a book club, I would tell her to ask ‘why’ even about the questions she asks. Why don’t you like the narration? Why do you think the character is stupid? Don’t know what to say or ask, then listen first. You are still allowed to give your opinion, but expect a ‘how so’ question. Most importantly, a book club discussion should be about the book hence why a book club is called a book club, and less about how the book does not serve you. Lastly, it’s okay to admit that you didn’t like the book, just…remember why.

Join a book club. If you’re still unsure, ask yourself why. If some of these issues are why you don’t want to join, then congrats, you’re the perfect person to join one! You know what you don’t want in a book club, so share your thoughts and make the club work for you. If it doesn’t do any good, there are plenty of book clubs out there that will fit your needs. Who knows, maybe someday you’ll lead one.

Jazmine Cooper is one of Pages in-house booksellers and our resident Black literature and Poetry curator. She leads the Detroit Chapter of the Well-Read Black Girl Book Club.

For more information on the club and other events, please visit pagesbkshop.com.

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Pages Bookshop

Friendly neighborhood bookstore in northwest Detroit. Home to Pip the Cat.