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My Book Club: Shay Leighton on the Tough Guy Book Club

Shay Leighton, Director of Tough Guy Book Club, shares his story of building up a network of over 90 book clubs in pubs around Australia and abroad.

How did Tough Guy Book Club start?

Shay started the Tough Guy Book Club 10 years ago. It started because he was personally going through a really rough time.

“I had buggered up some pretty key aspects of my life and I needed to change the way I was thinking”, he says. “I hadn’t read much in a long time but I knew that a good book can change the way you think, you see and feel things. So I decided we’d start a book club in the pub in Collingwood where we spent most of our time anyway, and it just kind of got out  of hand!”

About three months later, the Tough Guy Book Club opened their second chapter in Portland, Oregon. 10 years down the track, Tough Guy Book Club has expanded to over 90 clubs around Australia and abroad.

What books do you read?

The Tough Guy Book Clubs reads all kinds of things, but because all 90 of the ‘chapters’ read the same book at the same time each month, Shay and the organisers put a lot of thought into what those books are going to be.

Two main criteria guide their decision:

  1. They only read fiction: As Shay says, “guys already read enough books about World War II and sports biographies”, so these book clubs are an opportunity to expand their members’ reading repertoires.
  2. They don’t read ‘good’ books, the read ‘interesting’ books. Shay says, “if everyone likes a book I’ve kind of failed. What we need to do is we need to have some people hate the book because that creates a good conversation at the end of the month.”

What worked for Tough Guy Book Club?

Evident in Tough Guy Book Club’s success, is that many things have worked for them over the years. However Shay identifies two main areas that ‘worked’ for the establishment of their book clubs.

Meeting readers where they are
For Shay, it was important to bring reading into ‘third spaces’ like pubs where men were already gathering. The group also advertised the book clubs in spaces like bars, MMA gyms, tattoo parlours, and “other places where you don’t expect literature lovers to hang out.”

The success of this strategy in recruiting members to the Tough Guy Book Clubs demonstrated to Shay that “there’s a group of people out there who knew they wanted to read more, or were able to read more, or would enjoy reading more, but we weren’t finding ways to invite them.”

Making reading social and visible
By meeting in pubs, Shay says the Book Clubs are successful in making sure that men are reading in spaces where other men (and particularly young men) could see them – fostering important “intergenerational conversations” between men through books.

The book clubs also try to demonstrate that reading doesn’t have to be a solitary act – it can be inherently social. “We made a club that is about reading, about talking, about having more friends, but also made it a community within our community that people could be involved and engaged with. And we did that by just learning the classic lesson of not judging a book by its cover.”

Is reading tough?

“Of course it is! What a silly question,” Shay says. “But the real question is ‘what is toughness?’ And who got to decide that reading wasn’t part of it? Because I didn’t get a vote. Did you?”

Find out more

Shay Leighton appeared as part of the program of Australia Reads’ VOLUME symposium, which brought together experts from across the literary, advocacy, and social change sectors to discuss how to build Australia as a reading nation.

Watch Shay Leighton’s Lightning Talk

Find out more about the Tough Guy Book Club.