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Book Discussion Groups: An Introductory Guide: How to Choose & Acquire Great Books

A guide to joining, starting, and running a book group.
Introduction to How to Choose & Acquire Great Books


Choosing and acquiring your group's next read is often the most important part of a book group! 


Book Selection Qualities to Look For - What books make for a good discussion? Find out here!

To Vote or Not to Vote - When and how will you choose your next book? These options can help give you some ideas.

Book Groups with a Theme - Ways to incorporate a theme into your group, theme options, and links to reading challenges around the world.

Acquiring the Book - Will your participants borrow the book from their local library or purchase it? What will these options mean for your group?

Book Selection Qualities


Good qualities for a book discussion

Liking the book is secondary to a good discussion. Remember that some of the best book discussions come from members who did not enjoy the book or when the group is split on a book.

  • Must be well written
  • Must have three dimensional characters
  • Must have an interesting plot
  • Must let you read between the lines


Types of books that make for a good discussion

  • Books with ambiguous endings
  • Books with multiple narratives
  • Books with an unreliable narrator
  • Books requiring the main character to make a decision
  • Books that make the reader think or reevaluate an opinion (This can be fiction or nonfiction)
  • Character-driven books
  • Memoirs are a great choice for nonfiction, as they often read like character-driven fiction. 
  • Nonfiction books should have high interest topics that can spark a debate between readers.


Things you might want to avoid

  • “Happy” books may not sustain a discussion, if all you can say is that you liked it.
  • Political books that may alienate or anger readers, are probably best left off the table.
  • Books that are likely to make someone in your group uncomfortable or embarrassed can be difficult to discuss.


A note about graphic novels

Graphic novels can be great reads, but they don't always offer up much in the way of a discussion. One way to get a good discussion going is to read two or more graphic novels for one group meeting. Since they are usually quick reads, that's not asking a lot of readers, and with more than one book to discuss, you can have a compare and contrast conversation while also answering the usual discussion questions. Choose similar themes, different titles by the same author, or books that are widely different from each other, the choice is up to you

To Vote or Not to Vote


When will you choose the books you read?

When you choose your books will depend on multiple factors!

  • You may choose your books one month at a time, several months at a time, or plan the entire year in advance. This depends on how far into the future your group wants to know what they're reading or how often they like choosing books. It can also depend on whether or not your group chooses to read multiple books to match a specific theme, or if they like reading the latest bestsellers. 
  • How far in advance you choose your titles might also depend on how group members acquire their books.
    • If you are borrowing library books, you'll want to give them enough time for copies of the book to become available, depending on its popularity and wait list. Two months ahead is a good basic timeline for most library books. If you choose a popular title, you may need to wait for the popularity to cool off or place holds and then wait for them to come in to read the book.  
    • If you are purchasing your books, it will depend on how easily stocked your local bookstore is (is the book brand new and popular or out-of-print and hard to find?), or how long shipping might take if they need to be ordered online. (Remember, even if your members use Amazon, not everyone may have Amazon Prime's two-day shipping.)
  • If your members choose the books, rather than the host or group leader, you may want to consider how often you acquire new group members. Sometimes new members will want to have a say in the books they're reading and may feel uncomfortable or awkward if everything has been chosen without them. Remember to be transparent about how your group works right from the start. If you've already chosen your titles months in advance, it can be helpful to ensure new members know they will have a say the next time choosing titles comes around.


How will you choose the books you read?

There are many different ways you can choose the books you read. If you decide one way isn't working for you, it's perfectly okay to try out something new.

  • You may decide that a different member chooses the book each month (or gives a few options).
    • If a different group member hosts each meeting, you may leave the book choice up to the host.
  • The book club leader may choose the books every month.
  • Perhaps choose a topic and 3 books related to it - that's three different months planned right there.
  • Choose themed books during specific months (i.e. a book written by a woman about women for March, Women's History Month; a book about a transgender character for June, Pride Month, or a book about the history of ice cream for National Ice Cream Day in July.)
  • One month, everyone might bring a different book to share instead of having only one title under discussion.
  • Have everyone nominate one book they would like to read that will get added to a poll for everyone to vote on. Will the nominations be anonymous? 
    • Determine if people can renominate something if it doesn't get chosen that month. How many times can a book be renominated before it gets taken off the table for awhile?
  • If your group has an online presence on Goodreads, or on any of the other options listed under Start a Book Group, you may want to use their poll feature to vote on your next read or you may want to go old school with slips of paper at your meeting. Even if you meet in-person, that doesn't mean you can't vote online! Voting online is also great for those who can't make it to a meeting, are uncomfortable announcing what they want to read in social situations, or just to keep the responses anonymous.
  • You can also use SurveyMonkey, to create polls for when you will meet or what you will read next.
  • Let Lady Luck help you choose your next read:
    • Book Jar -  Have everyone write their nominated titles, authors, genres, or prompts on slips of paper. Put the slips in the jar, seal it up, shake it up, and each month rotate who gets to reach in and pull out a slip. 
    • Spin the Wheel - Add titles to a wheel and spin it to see which title gets picked. PickerWheel is one such free online option.
Book Groups With a Theme


Do you have a theme?

This is not to say you must have a theme. Most book groups forgo themes and read a different type of book every month. It's good to have an idea of what you want in advance so that everyone is on the same page.

If you are interested in having a theme, make sure it's broad enough that you will be able to find enough books. For example, something like "art mysteries" are not nearly as plentiful and easy to find as "cozy mysteries" or "women authors".

It is also possible to choose a different topic or genre for each month and then choose titles to match: 

  • One way might be to choose a different ethnic group to focus on each month, so January you might choose to read fiction by Latinx Authors, and Feburary might be African Authors, and so on and so forth.
  • Or you may choose to read a different genre each month and require that all nominations be authors of color.   

Having a focus like these can also help your group members feel less overwhelmed by all the options out there when they nominate titles. Depending on how far into the future you plan, if you know that in July you'll be reading a Mystery novel, you can start a list of possible titles well in advance and then vote when you're closer to the discussion date.

Keep in mind, you don't have to do this the same way every year. It can be fun to change it up every January or on the anniversary of your first meeting. 


Possible theme ideas include:

  • Choosing to read a broad selection of only fiction or nonfiction
  • Books for teens or children (adults can enjoy them too!)
  • Cozy mysteries
  • Translations
  • Mysteries
  • Graphic novels
  • Short story collections
  • Biographies & Memoirs
  • Female authors and/or female main characters
  • Classics
  • Science fiction
  • New York Times Bestsellers
  • Fantasy
  • Armchair travel
  • Books soon to be movies
  • Parenting nonfiction
  • Debut books
  • Banned books
  • Books published within a specific year or decade
  • Career advice nonfiction
  • Local interest/local authors (fiction/nonfiction)
  • Retellings
  • Plays/Dramas
  • Books by or about musicians and music 
  • Books by authors of color  
  • Urban fiction/Street lit
  • LGBTQ+ authors (fiction/nonfiction)
  • Essays
  • Magical Realism
  • Books by authors from specific continents or countries
  • Poetry
  • Social justice nonfiction
  • Audiobooks (fiction/nonfiction)
  • Sports nonfiction
  • Finance nonfiction
  • Romance novels
  • Cookbooks (everyone can make a recipe from the book to share!)
  • Books you already own but haven't read yet (each member takes a turn choosing the book)
  • Everyone reads a different title and talks about it rather than everyone reading the same book
  • Fanfiction (fiction written by fans of popular works like Harry Potter or Law and Order that's posted online for free)


Fantastic Books Book Group Monthly Theme Plan

In 2021, the Fantastic Books Book Group at the BPL chose to vote on a different theme for each month. Five books for each theme were then chosen by the librarian and voted on by the group members. Check out the group's book lists to see what themes have been chosen over the years and get some ideas for your own group! 

Reading Challenges 

Reading challenges can be a great boost to your personal reading list, but they are also great for book groups! 

POPSUGAR Reading Challenge for 2024 - This annual challenge is a list of 50 fun and unique book prompts that will help you accomplish your reading goals, whether you simply want to read more books in the coming year or you want to diversify your reading by diving into niche genres, discovering lesser-known authors, or branching out of your book comfort zones.

The 2023 Master List of Reading Challenges - This is is a compilation of YEAR-LONG challenges designed to level up your reading year. Check back every Sunday through January 2022, as the list is updated with new reading challenges for the year ahead.

Acquiring the Book


How will members acquire the book?

Make sure the book you choose is easily acquired by all of your members.

  • If they plan to buy it, does it have to be special ordered or can they walk into any bookstore and buy a copy right then?
    • Remember that newer titles may be more expensive, while older books may be out-of-print or hard to find.
    • Some groups wait for the cheaper paperback edition to come out. 
  • Does your library have enough copies for all of your members? If you choose the latest bestseller, the wait for a library book could be several months. If you choose an older title the library may only have one or two copies available.
    • If you do choose a currently popular title with a long wait list, have everyone place holds at the same time so the books should come in about the same time. This will mean that planning ahead, as to when you will read that particular title, may be difficult, until you get closer to the top of the wait list.
    • See the Checking the Boston Public Library's Catalog section below to learn how to see how many copies we own and whether or not they're available.
  • Not everyone will acquire the book the same way! Remember that even if most of your group members will buy the book, some will still opt for a library copy, so the latest bestseller that just released last week may not always be a good option for you.


eBooks & eAudiobooks

eBooks and eAudiobooks are also a possibility for group members to purchase for themselves or to borrow from the library. When borrowing these electronic items from the library for a large group, however, it will be helpful for you to know how each of these platforms work:

  • Overdrive and its app, Libby offer eBooks and eAudiobooks. Most of these work the same way a print copy would, in that we have a certain number of copies and they can only be checked out to one person at a time. There are a few that can go out to multiple readers at the same time.
  • hoopla (hoopladigital), offers eBooks, graphic novels, music, and movies. This is a streaming service where the titles are always available and there is no limit to how many people can check out a single item at the same time. 
  • It is also helpful to know that not all books are available on every platform and we have no control over where we can purchase a title. Likewise, especially with Overdrive, we have no control over whether a book is available to send to your Kindle or to your EPUB reader. The particular formats on Overdrive that are available for a specific book are at the determination of the publisher. 

You can learn more about our different eBook and eAudiobook platforms on our Stream & Download page.

Project Gutenberg - There are many classic books that are now out of copyright and are available at websites like Project Gutenberg! As there is an overwhelming number of books to choose from you may want to go through their list of top 100 downloaded books, where you’ll find many recognizable classics. Project Gutenberg books can be downloaded in a variety of formats and should be compatible with eReader apps such as Books (for iOS devices) and Kindle (platform agnostic).


Checking the Boston Public Library's Catalog

  1. Go to the library's catalog.
  2. Type in the title you're looking for and hit "Enter" or click on the magnifying glass icon to begin your search. 
  3. Above your search results you'll see four icons. Click the icon with the brackets [ ] around the horizontal lines. This will group all formats and editions of a single title together so they are easier to find. 
  4. Click on "Available View Details" to see where that copy of the book is located and whether or not it's on shelf or checked out. This is an easy way to count the number of physical copies available for your group!
  5. For print books, you may place a hold, one copy per library card, by clicking on the Place a Hold button. 
  6. For Ebooks and Eaudiobooks, go directly to the platform it's on and request it there. 


A note on availability

There are several types of items found in our catalog that BPL patrons cannot take home from the BPL, or request from other libraries in the BPL system.

  • Books listed as "In-Library-Use-Only". 
  • Books listed as belonging to one of the Boston Public Schools (BPS).
  • While Fisher College will lend some of their items out, others are held on reserve for their students.
  • Books that belong to the Chelsea and Malden Public Libraries with a “New Shelf” location.
  • Books with a location of Pallet Room, Archival Center, or BPL-The Arts.

If you are still unsure how many copies of a book the library has, or would like help, ask a librarian! We are always happy to assist you.


Borrowing from Other Libraries

If the BPL does not own a title you are looking for, you may request it from another library system by following these steps: 

  1. First try our catalog, then try
  2. The Commonwealth Catalog (ComCat), which includes participating libraries within Massachusetts. (Click the cat image to do a search before you log in.)
  3. If you still haven’t found the item you need, place your request through ILLiad, and someone in our ILL department will search for the book for you.
  4. If you have any additional questions please view our frequently asked questions on borrowing from other libraries, or contact the ILL department.


If you are a Boston Public Librarian, log into the Staff Intranet for information on requesting titles for your book group.