An admission: I’m not a very nice board game player. As a child I sulked when I lost, crowed when I won, and cheated when I could, and as an adult I just barely manage to slap a thin veneer of politeness and fair play over the savage brat within. So when I hear families talk about that gold standard of quality family time, Family Game Night, I’m always puzzled. Do they want to re-create Lord of the Flies every night in their living room? Is it fun for them, watching their children descend into a state of nature, red in tooth and claw?
Perhaps it is, but for the family who prefers to avoid reenacting Gladiator every third Wednesday of the month, I have a (to my mind) much more civilized alternative: the family book club. Below are five reasons to start one immediately, and ten recommendations to get you started.
1. Because book clubs are awesome, and even more awesome when you don’t have to leave your living room.
My monthly book club is a highlight of my social calendar (okay, it is my social calendar). It’s amazing how different other people’s perspectives on a book can be, which means that by the end of the evening you’ll frequently walk away with a much broader, more well-rounded understanding of whatever you read. And what could be better than getting all that great discussion without even having to change out of your comfy pants?
The conversational nature of a book club also means they’re very well suited to including faraway family members—perfect for families who are scattered around the world. Just dial them up on Skype, position the laptop in a convenient location, and start chatting.
2. Because books provide fantastic dinner conversation, whether that’s for daily family dinner or tense Thanksgivings when you’re desperate to find something to talk about that’s not politics or religion.
You may not all support the same primary candidate, but surely everyone agrees Rainbow Rowell is a national treasure (if they don’t, disown them immediately. Some things can’t be gotten over).
3. Because if you have younger children it’s a great way to show them how fun reading and talking about books can be, and if you have (or are) an older child, it’s a great way to bond as adults.
Helping a child find a love of reading is one of the greatest gifts you can give them, and if your children are already grown, or if you’re a grown child looking for a way to stay close with your parents, books are a wonderful excuse to get together once a month and really talk.
4. Because it’s a low-cost way to entertain an entire family.
In the city I live in, an evening out to the movies for a family of four could easily run over forty dollars for tickets alone. Add in even very conservative refreshments and suddenly you’re looking at a sixty dollar price tag for two to three hours of entertainment. Getting a couple of books to share between you won’t break the bank. Even a quite lavish affair with a special dessert could cost less than half what a movie would.
5. Because it’s an opportunity to learn something new about each other.
The greatest thing about any book club is not the opportunity to talk, it’s the opportunity to listen—and what family couldn’t use a little more of that? You might be surprised by the stories and experiences you learn about, even from your nearest and dearest.
Convinced? Of course you are. But how to pick that all-important first book? Here are ten great books that offer more than enough material to talk about.
For the Family That Wants to Embrace the Classics
Fiction: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
It’s an obvious choice, but given that this month will see the movie release of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it seems like a good time to make sure everyone you love has read this biting, hilarious, and romantic novel.
Paperback $11.73 | $16.00
Nonfiction: So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, by Maureen Corrigan
Before The Great Gatsby was on every high school sophomore’s reading list, it spent years languishing in the literary wilds, having received mixed reviews and even lower sales upon its debut. So how did a little-read and almost forgotten book become one of the most important American novels of all time? What informed its creation? And what can we still learn from it today? Corrigan sets out to answer these questions in a witty, accessible book that will delight just as it informs.
For the Family That Loves Politics
Fiction: Washington, D.C, by Gore Vidal
Most of the books from Vidal’s Narratives of Empire series would make for interesting book club discussion, but Washington, D.C., the first published and the sixth in the series, is a particularly fascinating one. Stretching from the New Deal to the McCarthy era, the novel follows several major political players—a congressman, a newspaper tycoon, and a congressional aide—as they attempt to follow the twisted path to power. Frequently named one of the great novels about American politics, it’s also enjoyable and highly readable.
Nonfiction: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by Jane Mayer
In this fascinating, intensively researched book, the best-selling author of The Dark Side turns her attention to the financial side of politics. Relying on five years of interviews, Mayer paints a picture of a libertarian political network, funded by some of the country’s richest people (most prominently Charles and David Koch), that has, over the past several decades, slowly gained control over many of the nation’s most significant institutions, from universities to Congress. Including interviews with sources within the network, Dark Money raises important questions about reform and politics in America today. It’s also been creating quite a stir since its release last month, making it perfect material for your first book club meeting.
For the Family That Loves the Movies
Fiction: Moving Pictures, by Terry Pratchett
Alternate filing: “For the Family That Likes Hilarious Amazing Things.” When movie magic descends on Discworld things start to get even weirder than usual, in this extremely funny satirical take on the golden age of Hollywood (the book is set in a place called Holy Wood and stars a wizard turned extra and a talking dog). Moving Pictures is the tenth book in Pratchett’s beloved Discworld series, but it’s also fairly easy to read as a standalone, so on the off chance you or your family haven’t yet been introduced to the delight that is the Discworld universe it’s an okay place to start (here’s a primer on the series to give you some background).
Nonfiction: The Dream Life: Movies, Media, And The Mythology Of The Sixties, by J. Hoberman
This well-reviewed book from film critic Hoberman takes the reader back to the point in time where, he argues, “movies might be political events, and political events were experienced as movies.” Easily interweaving movies, wars, pop culture, and history, Hoberman looks at the way politics and film became entangled in a book that’s as much about culture, history, and politics as it is about movies. A good choice for any family interested in movies, political culture, or the 1960’s.
Also, I think it’s out of print, but if you ever come across a used copy of Irene Mayer Selznick’s autobiography, A Private View, pick it up. It’s one of the most delicious accounts of Hollywood inside baseball I’ve ever read (as hinted at by her name—yes, it’s that Mayer and that Selznick).
For the Family with High-Schoolers
Fiction: Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell
This kind, funny, occasionally tear-inducing book is one of the best young adult novels I’ve ever read, period. Set in 1986 (with all the cool retro pop-culture you could want), it follows Eleanor, a girl with wild red hair and a sharp sense of humor who has to deal with an abusive home life (Eleanor & Park is also one of the best books about abuse that I’ve ever read) as she falls in love with Park, a thoughtful, empathetic half-Korean boy from a good home. A must-read.
Nonfiction: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Written from a father to his son, Coates’s latest is a deeply moving and profoundly important book about race, violence, and the United States of America, both past and present. Short, beautifully written, and accessible while still being enormously challenging, Between the World and Me debuted to rave reviews and created an immediate sensation (Toni Morrison called it “required reading” and John Greene said it was the book he was most grateful for in 2015).
For the Family with Middle-Schoolers
Fiction: Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones
It’s my impression that a lot more people know about the charmingly disturbing Miyazaki film based on this book than about the book itself, which is really a shame. Diana Wynne Jones, who died in 2011, wrote some of the funniest, most imaginative children’s books I know of, and it’s my profound hope that today’s children will continue to enjoy her. Howl’s Moving Castle follows Sophie, a hat-maker who talks to her hats. When the hats begin to listen, she accidentally attracts the attention of the Witch of the Waste, who gets mad and turns her into an old woman. This is, unfortunately for Sophie, only the start of her adventures: once she meets the vain wizard Howl, things get infinitely more difficult.
Non-fiction: Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
This beautiful book of verse poetry contains Woodson’s reflections on being an African American child in the 1960’s and 70’s, on growing up in New York and South Carolina in a turbulent time for civil rights, and on the comfort of her family and the wonder of childhood. A winner of the National Book Award and accessible to children and adults alike, Brown Girl Dreaming is an especially good book to read together.
What book will kick off your family book club?