A First Year Retrospective of Bridging the Divide Book Club by Sarah Goddin, General Manager of Quail Ridge Books
In response to the current deep political divisions in our country and community, where people with one view find it hard to comprehend how others could hold a different view, Quail Ridge Books launched a monthly book club with the goal of fostering dialog and better understanding. The book club, called Bridging the Divide, has moderators and book selections representing issues and viewpoints across the political spectrum: left, right, and central. The aim of each discussion is to promote understanding ... “Ah, now I understand how they can think that!” ... rather than to convince anyone of a particular point of view.
We started in May 2017 and had large turnouts for our first 3 meetings: 50, 47, and 87 people respectively. Then things started to slow down and for the next 4 meetings we had 23, 6, 25, and 2 (a low point, for sure!). Since then we have rebounded and have had 25 to 34 at the last several meetings, which is a really good number for discussion.
My original idea was to have 2 moderators, one liberal and one conservative, and let them take it from there, choosing the books and running the meetings. That didn’t work out and I think it would actually be pretty hard, maybe not possible, to do it well without a lot of hands-on involvement from someone on the store staff.
To find moderators, Rene Martin, our events coordinator, and I put our heads together and came up with a short list of local folks who were both political and open-minded. Our mission statement says we have moderators across the political spectrum and we don’t identify anyone as liberal or conservative, though it's pretty obvious who is what. We have just one person moderate each discussion although the other moderator often attends, too. We’ve had several guest moderators as well, including a psychology professor from NC State University who led the discussion on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me.
One issue with having moderators from outside the store was that that some of them didn’t really know how book clubs work and, though I met with them in advance, described the discussion process, and provided tip sheets, they started out doing more of a lecture than leading a group discussion. It was good to be on hand and intervene to get the discussion started. After the first time repeat moderators got much better at opening it up to more give and take. They have started bringing a short list of potential discussion questions that we hand out at the beginning of each meeting which is very helpful in keeping the discussion on track. We limit each meeting to an hour, starting at 7 and ending at 8.
While the discussions have all been very civil, we have frequently had an attendee who hasn’t quite grasped the concept and makes somewhat partisan and derogatory comments. The moderators have handled it well and done a good job of not letting anyone dominate the discussion. One good tip, especially with larger groups, is to say “Is there anyone we haven’t heard from yet who would like to comment?” I’ve also had complaints from attendees about moderators, saying they weren’t representing "their side” strongly enough, i.e. conservatives complained the conservative moderator wasn’t conservative enough and the liberals complained the liberal moderator wasn’t liberal enough. I considered that a sign we were doing something right! I do explain that isn’t the purpose of the discussion. I do a welcome and introduction at each event and explain our mission (we always have people who haven’t been to one before) and also give my contact info and invite people to talk to me afterwards or email or call me to give me feedback or suggest topics or books.
I’ve listed below the books we’ve discussed so far. It has been a challenge finding the right books and we haven’t posted selections more than a couple months in advance because I keep wanting to learn what works as we go along. One observation is that the more abstract and wonkier the book, the fewer people show up, even though we may sell a bunch of books. For instance, the book on environmental conservatism by Roger Scruton was pretty dense and philosophical and while we sold 21 copies, only 6 people showed up for the meeting. The previous book, How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate, was short and readable and we had 23 people and a great discussion. That was from a series called The Stanford Briefs and I wish they had more good issue-oriented books like that but their other topics are not as useful. I think one of the reasons we had decent crowds for Hillbilly Elegy and Between the World and Me was because so many people had already read those books and were eager to discuss them.
Another challenge has been to get a more diverse attendee group, including people of color and conservatives. When I asked our conservative moderator why we had so few conservatives, he suggested they assumed bookstores were liberal havens and didn’t trust them to be fair to conservatives. We’re still working on that and on getting more diversity in race and other representation. Both have improved considerably in the last few meetings with a good representation across gender, age, race, and political orientation.
My wish starting out was that we would have a core group of attendees from across the political spectrum who would get to know one another and be eager to explore and, ultimately, respect each other’s views. Initially, people seemed to attend based on whether or not the particular book, issue, or moderator was one they knew or were interested in. A year in we're getting a core group of regulars plus a few new faces at each, which is good for more trust and more honest discussions.
Our main expenses are staff time in organizing, communicating, promoting, and setting up and breaking down the event space. I give both moderators the discussion book free so they can prepare (unless they already own it) and I occasionally give them a $25 store gift card as a thank you. We’re still learning a lot from each selection and discussion and I’m very eager to hear and learn from any of you if you try your own versions.
Books chosen so far:
May: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam
June: Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 by Charles Murray
July: no meeting because of holiday
August: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance
September: How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate by Andrew Hoffman
October: How to Think Seriously About the Planet: A Case for Environmental Conservatism by Roger Scruton
November: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates
December: Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America by Ari Berman
January: no meeting because of holiday and inventory
February: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer
March: The Intimidation Game: How the Left is Silencing Free Speech by Kimberley Strassel
April: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
May: Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations by Amy Chua
June: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
September: The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know by Phillip Cook and Kristin Goss
Some books we’ve considered or possible future choices:
The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies, newly updated edition by Susan Jacoby
Things That Matter by Charles Krauthammer
Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News by Bernard Goldberg
The War on Guns: Arming Yourself Against Gun Control Lies by John Lott
Living with Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment by Craig Whitney
Shame: How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country by Shelby Steele
The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic by Ganesh Sitaraman