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Friday, February 27, 2009 3:29 am
Book Group Grace: How to Talk About Books, Pt.1
Posted by: Neil Hollands

First attempts at book group discussion can be awkward. Heck, if you’re like me, your hundredth book group can be awkward. When I was first getting started, I’d make comments that I thought were insightful, but the group would react as if I’d made armpit noises at the Mozart society or talked about my last bout with Montezuma’s Revenge at high tea with the Queen. I’d make a remark that I considered mild and get a reaction as strong as if I’d been caught substituting plastic explosives for the Playdoh at the daycare.

OK, I’m exaggerating a bit (I do that), but most book group participants experience feelings of inadequacy when they join good groups and discover that their book discussion skills aren’t up to snuff. No matter how much you read, your skill at that art won’t necessarily translate into success in talking about books. My posts for the next few weeks will provide a few hints to help you show grace under book group pressure. This week I want to focus on three hints for getting ready for group. 

1) READ THE BOOK. COME TO GROUP.

I know this seems obvious. I know life has many demands. But if you make the commitment to a book group, find time for the reading and the meetings. People will notice if you consistently fail to finish the book or miss most of the meetings. Once they do, it might not matter how brilliant your discussion is, their natural reaction will be to pay you just a little bit less attention. If you haven’t finished the book, don’t make a fuss, go on about everything that kept you from the reading, or ask others to limit their discussion so they don’t give away plot points. They made sacrifices to read the book too: don’t expect sympathy if you didn’t. Just contribute what you can, and try to finish next time.

2) DO SOME HOMEWORK. BRING THINGS TO PASS AROUND.

Extra background always helps book discussion. Look up the author’s biography or bibliography online. Read a review or two of the book. If the book is older, research the reaction to the book on its original publication or find out what other authors were popular at the time. Better yet, print these materials up and bring them to group to pass around. If you find a biography of the author with pictures, or a deluxe edition of the book, bring them along to share. How about pictures of the book’s setting? Or a related (or surprising) work by the same author? All of these will add depth and fun to your group’s discussion and help make you a popular member.

3) THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU WILL SAY IN ADVANCE

As many readers are, I’m a quiet person. I can be tongue-tied in a social setting. If you have this problem, or just don’t come across the way you would like, you might find that it pays to quit trusting spontanaeity: Prepare a few comments before you go to group. I’ve known some folks who even bring in a paper and read their comments. Most groups will be accepting, even appreciative, if such comments are BRIEF and well composed. But unless you’re a chronically bad public speaker, it isn’t necessary to go that far. Just make notes to yourself about three aspects of the book you would like to discuss, then find the appropriate moments during the group to bring these points up. If it helps, find other readers outside your group and try the ideas out on them beforehand. With a little practice and forethought, you’ll find you can make better comments during the actual group.

Advance preparation can pay extra dividends if each reader is bringing a different book. Organize what you will say about the book in advance and practice it once or twice to keep yourself from being too brief, or conversely, from rambling.

Next week: Hints for how to handle yourself under pressure at the actual meeting.

4 Responses to “Book Group Grace: How to Talk About Books, Pt.1”
  1. Book Group Buzz - Discussion of Book Clubs, Reading Lists, and Literary News - Booklist Online » Blog Archive » Book Group Grace: Talking About Books, Part 2 Says:

    [...] Last week, I made suggestions about how you can turn a little preparation into a better book group experience, but advance preparation will only get you so far. Here are three more simple suggestions to make you better at talking about books once the meeting actually starts. This week, I’ll focus on what not to do–three important DONT’S of book group discussion. [...]

  2. Susan Daugherty Says:

    How do you deal with book groups where most of the participants just want to say, “Didn’t you like such-and-such a part,” and agree with each other. If I bring up an opposite point of view, they are clearly uncomfortable. I think this could be because my group is 99 percent women and they feel that having a healthy discussion with different points of view is not polite. I am a woman but I disagree. Susan

  3. andreajean Says:

    Susan: It doesn’t have to do with being a woman. Many women love to disagree. Try to bring up questions that don’t have yes/no or right/wrong answers. Try asking “How did this part make you feel?”

  4. Neil Hollands Says:

    Susan, you bring up a good question, one that deserves an entire posting some time in the future. Willingness to debate varies, and it could just be that you need to shop around for a book group that fits your style. If your group is uncomfortable with negative remarks, try mixing a negative aspect of the book with a more positive aspect in the same comment. It might give other group members more room to maneuver in their conversational comfort zone. Also, you might try to take special care to talk about whether the book and its parts were believable, moving, familiar, visual, vivid, unusual, or had any other quality that is less value-loaded than “good” or “bad”. Even if they are unwilling to express anything but positive comments at first, you might still push them to deeper discussion by asking them to identify their favorite character, talking about the conflicts in the novel, or asking if they would have handled a situation in the same way a character did.

    But at the end of the day, there are some groups that use books as an excuse to get together and socialize. If (literally!) that’s not your cup of tea, then you might see if another group is available. Try asking your local library for leads.


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