The most important thing to look for is enthusiasm. You need to find some people who really want to be in this group, for whatever reason. Wanting to get away for a few hours from those god-awful people they gave birth to is fine.
When you have a list compiled of potential bookies, check how much you have in common with these people -- not just on the outside, but politically, geographically, philosophically. If it's practically everything, ditch this group and start all over, because the last thing you want is a bunch of people who are just going to spend the evening smiling and nodding at each other. If there's no real potential for stimulating disagreement, you might as well sit home alone and listen to yourself natter, since that's probably what an evening with these clones will end up like anyway.
My own group works well in large part because it's diverse in the genuine sense of the word. We have pagans and Christians, SUV drivers and good people, technophobes who've had their favorite electronic equipment surgically implanted so they never have to look for it next to Luddites who spit on cell phones, a woman who got her navel pierced as a fortieth birthday present to herself and a Mennonite. The only truly common ground we have is that we all love, admire, and esteem my brownies.
I love the mix. I love the uncertainty. I love knowing that, no matter what we're reading, someone is bound to spit out the most insane, off-the-planet bizarritude I've ever heard. I don't mean that everyone there is a complete lunatic. That would be just as bad as having an all-Stepford bunch. But especially since we're reading the so-called classics, I don't want it to be a bunch of people mouthing platitudes or making earnest, inane, admiring remarks. There should be just enough madness to keep things slightly off-balance and enjoyable.
Ideally, out of, say, eight people present, you should have:
One leader, who will let things wander pleasantly now and then but can be counted on to rein the chatter in when it goes completely off the track for too long;
One beta female, who backs the leader up by chiming in supportively when she turns the talk back to the book allegedly under discussion and asking pertinent, book-related questions, all the while keeping a sharp eye out for chinks in the leader's armor so she can slide a well-aimed blade in at just the right time ("Funny, I didn't think Jane Eyre was written by Jane Austen") and take over the group;
Two good listeners, who will murmur agreement with whoever is speaking at the moment;
One frustrated writer, who must be kept in careful check lest she spend the entire evening giving a detailed description of the novel she's going to be working on as soon as she has time to start actually writing, but who can be counted on to furnish some harmless entertainment by explaining everything wrong with the evening's book, namely that it wasn't written by her;
One town crank, who will initially be difficult to identify as such, as she sits as silently as the good listeners until she abruptly belts out a literary theory so outrageously indefensible ("Milton was actually an atheist, you know") that you will burst out laughing until you realize she's serious;
One friend of a friend, who could only be persuaded to come to the meeting by being plied with vodka martinis and who consequently can put no more than two related sentences together, though she herself is blissfully unaware of this disability;
One new member, who is nervously trying to size up the group and worrying that she isn't well-read enough to be here. Her belief that everything she says must be brilliant, funny, and erudite will keep her pretty much tongue-tied all evening, but she will at least help clear up the dishes afterward.
This is what is known as a good time just waiting to happen.
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