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Tips for joining a book club when you have hearing loss

book clubs and hearing loss
The next best thing to reading books is discussing them. But, as with many social activities, book clubs can be difficult to participate with a hearing loss.

Why Book Clubs Are Challenging

I’ve always loved to read. I was even an English major in college, where I read and analyzed books to graduate. I always get so much more out of a book when discussing it with someone else; other perspectives help bring out deeper meanings and greater understanding.

After college, I missed this part of my life. I wanted to join a book club, but was afraid due to my deafness. When I recently surveyed my deaf friends, I discovered that we all feel this way.

“Group discussions are notoriously very challenging for me because by the time I figure out who is talking, I have sometimes missed the first few words of what’s being said,” says my friend Stacey Carroll, who has a cochlear implant.

Another friend, Rachel Dubin, who has bilateral cochlear implants, says she has never joined a book club because she doesn’t want to impose upon people with her communication requests. She needs people to talk one at a time, speak clearly, etc. She feels if she makes these requests, she’ll be ignored repeatedly. She’s also never been able to participate effectively in a group conversation, even if she has something to say.

“I can’t figure out how to jump in without interrupting someone,” she says. “[Or] nobody listens to me, [and/or] somebody interrupts me. I’ve found that people get annoyed when they’re asked to talk one at a time or take their hands away from their mouths, even if they’re asked politely. The burden is constantly on me to advocate, which is tiring.”

Even when some of us attempt to join a book club, it results in disaster. My friend Susan Pollack, who has a cochlear implant, joined a mother-daughter book club when her oldest was in fourth grade. She was reluctant, because she didn’t know anyone except the mom who invited them, and when she did give it a try, she didn’t like it. She couldn’t understand any of the girls, and the moms wanted to talk about everything but the book.

“Not a single person in the group, mom or child, was capable of keeping hands away from face, or speaking at an acceptable volume or pace,” she says.

The Right Group of People

Pollack says she’d try another book club, but with the right group of people.

Mary Reed, who also has a cochlear implant, agrees that it takes the right group. It took her a second book club to realize this. She has been in one book club since 2006, but she calls it the “harder book club for her,” since it’s bigger (usually 10-12 people) and more cliquish. Group conversation is impossible, and efforts to rope her in are few and far between.

“I feel like I sit there for an hour and a half, having no idea what is going on,” she says. “It is rare when I am able to get into a good one-on-one conversation, or even with three people, because conversation always drifts to the big central group conversation where everyone is talking over each other.”

“I feel like I sit there for an hour and a half, having no idea what is going on.”

Why does Reed stick with this book club if she doesn’t enjoy it? She’s made individual friendships, and the group was supportive when her youngest was born with medical issues. The problem is, these friendships are good ones, yet they’re not close enough for Reed to feel comfortable speaking up to be included in the conversation. She copes by attending every other month, arriving late, leaving early, or going when she knows the group will be smaller.

“The latter strategy worked great in the earlier years, but lately this book club will cancel or reschedule if less than five people can come,” Reed says. “So now I can’t even enjoy the occasional small group.”

Reed’s second book club is smaller, the moms are easier to understand and more inclusive. It involves a full meal, so they usually sit around a table. This makes it easier for her than if they were sitting in a living area. Not only are the moms more aware, but they’re also consistent in their efforts.

“I also like that the hostess picks the book one month at a time, rather than a chaotic, disorienting group conversation throwing in multiple books at a time like it is at the other book club.”

Starting a Book Club  

Years ago I met someone with whom I had a lot in common – including the desire to be in a book club. We agreed to start one and keep it small so it’d be more manageable for me.

Our book club, aptly named Booksburgh (since we all reside in Pittsburgh), just celebrated its 14thanniversary. We have eight members, and are more than just a book club. We’ve been there for each other through highs and lows. We go out for our birthdays, take girls’ trips for milestone years, and have an annual holiday party with significant others. I’m comfortable enough in this group to be assertive when necessary.

All the trial and error we endured was worth it to be the happily functioning group we are today. Perhaps you can learn from my experience. If you’re thinking about being in a book club, here are some things to consider:

9 Book Club Tips for readers with hearing loss

  1. Size: Like they say, size is relative. Everyone’s comfort zone is different, but generally, under 10 is a safe number. Usually it’s rare when everyone attends, but it’s important to be prepared for this possibility. If all 10 members showed up, would that be too large for you?
  2. Location: We take turns hosting at our homes, which is what many of my friends do as well. This way we have more control over factors like noise, lighting, and seating arrangements. If you meet at a coffee shop or restaurant, remember to choose a place where you can easily see and hear. I’ve got my friends well trained; they’ll voluntarily ask, “Is this enough light for you?” and ask where I want to sit and follow suit.
  3. Preparation: We’re not a book club that just reads wine labels; we have serious discussions about the book. Each month, the person who submitted the book is the one who facilitates the discussion. Part of that is providing background on the author. You can ask to read this information after it’s read, or request that a copy be made for you so you can follow along. In Caitlin Parton’s book club, the host prints out a list of discussion questions for everyone to look at and follow. “I’m the only deaf person, but we are all book nerds and love order,” she says.
  4. Choosing Books: Our method of choosing books used to be as confusing as Reed’s, but now we have a system that’s great for many reasons. We pick books at least eight months out. If there are ties, sometimes we’ll add one or two of those books as well. Everyone picks two books to submit for the month they’ll lead. We then pick one of those two books via an online survey. If there’s a tie, the person who submitted gets to choose. This method means I don’t have to worry about following a difficult conversation, and none of us can interject personal opinions or try to sway decisions one way or the other.
  5. Talking to Authors: Authors are more accessible than they used to be, but not necessarily for people with hearing loss. Pauline Newton was taken by surprise when her book club talked to an author over speaker phone. One of her friends filled her in later. The second time her group spoke with an author, it was over Skype, so she had no trouble understanding. If the conversation can’t be held in a visual format, ask if it can be done via text so that you’re not left out.
  6. Use Technology: This could be a fun way to test out technology like Google Transcribe or Ava, to see if real-time transcription is accurate or helpful.
  7. Speak Up! Set some ground rules at the outset. Explain to everyone what you need: one talker at a time, etc. Gently remind them when necessary. Speak up politely when you can’t follow. It might take some time, and the occasional reminder, but keep at it. They won’t know unless you tell them.
  8. Try Again: If you’ve tried and tried again and it’s just not working for you, then try again with a different group.
  9. Go Online: Online book clubs are all the rage, including Hearing Like Me’s new book club, which features deaf and hard of hearing authors. Join the conversation on Instagram and Facebook!

Read more: September Book Club: ‘My Hard of Hearing Life’ by Cynthia Dixon 


Don’t let your hearing loss stop you from joining a book club. As my friend Elizabeth Ralston, who has bilateral implants and has been with her group for 20 years, says, “If it’s with the right people, it will be so meaningful. Don’t let your deafness stop you from doing what you love!”

What tips do you have for participating in a book club?



Author Details
Lisa A. Goldstein has a Masters in Journalism from UC Berkeley, a digital hearing aid, a cochlear implant, and plenty of deaf-friendly communication equipment. She spends her days juggling life as a freelance journalist, wife, and mother of two in Pittsburgh, PA.