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.