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Tuesday, December 20, 2011 2:33 pm
Long Books in Book Groups, Pt. 2
Posted by: Neil Hollands

Last week, I spent several hundred words bemoaning the failure of many book groups to take on longer books, and outlining the reasons why I find that problematic. This week, I’d like to take a more positive approach, looking at some of the ways your group can bring longer books back into its meetings.

The first step is planning ahead. If longer books are to get on the agenda, your book group must make reading decisions on more than a month-by-month basis. A longer book on the schedule is manageable if readers know about it more than one or two months in advance. It also helps to plan a schedule that factors the lengths of books into selection decisions, balancing longer and shorter titles.

Second, there may be a psychological barrier to cross before your readers quit ruling out longer books out of habit. If your group has developed a short-book addiction, you might benefit from talking about the pleasures of long books, directly addressing the benefits and drawbacks of various lengths. Have a meeting where each reader introduces long books enjoyed in the past and the reasons she or he enjoyed them. Some groups will discover that they are well-suited for reading long books, even if it makes for a demanding month of reading. I highlight for instance, the comment of Linda J on my last message, who noted that her group read both Michener’s The Source and Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, in the latter case with every member opting for the full 1500-page book instead of one of its abridgements.

Dividing a rewarding long book over two months is a workable possibility, but this succeeds best if the goals for each month’s reading are clearly defined and aspects of discussion are saved for each meeting. For instance, in the first meeting, you might discuss the author, the setting, the book’s fundamental conflicts, and the events of early chapters. It can be fun to play the game of predicting the novel’s outcome if too many readers haven’t jumped ahead. The second meeting might address the resolution, the arcs of the characters and the plot, and the events of later chapters. Be strict in maintaining this division so that both meetings have meaning, so that the second is something to look forward to instead of a rehash of the first.

You might also occasionally select long works, but provide a short, related alternative for readers who need a quicker alternative that month. A quick read by the same author, that is set in the same time and place, or that references the larger work is often available.

Finally, I’ll again make the case that long books might best be handled in a thematic format instead of a common-selection format. Given a theme, readers who enjoy the more epic or detailed approaches to writing will be able to indulge this tendency, and if everyone in your group isn’t reading long books regularly, you’ll at least be exposed to them more regularly.

Whichever path your group takes to occasionally including a long work in its reading list, I think you’ll find it a worthwhile goal for the upcoming year.

4 Responses to “Long Books in Book Groups, Pt. 2”
  1. CarolK Says:

    Some of your suggestions to encourage reading of longer books seem to work in our group. Choosing the tome for September or January when the prior months are discussion free, gives participants extra time to read.

    I also find our non-fiction group is more open to the challenge of a longer read. When we choose the books we always try to give a page count but always jokingly mention how many pages of notes, etc., might be skipped.

    It seems a shame to dismiss a book based on page count when there are so many worthwhile choices that don’t fit the 300-400 page mold. One title that comes to mind is Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, 541 pages, a bit more than the average, but made for a great discussion.

    I think the longest book we read was 700+ pages but I can’t think of what it was at the moment.

  2. Al Says:

    Several years ago my club read Anna Karenina and split it up over two months. I had intended to have everyone read up to page X or chapter Y or something. Unfortunately, folks were reading so many different editions, this wasn’t possible.

    I ended up giving them a ballpark place to stop – something with the plot, though I’ve since forgotten.

    The discussion went well, but we decided that doing one book over two months wasn’t for us. We haven’t avoided long books, though. Last year we read biographies on Dorothea Lange and Cornelius Vanderbilt, both were well over 800 pages. In both cases, I tried to make sure the book *before* was shorter so people could finish that early and get a jump on the longer book.

  3. Alex Says:

    Another possibility could be creating a club around the theme of longer books. Instead of meeting monthly, they could meet bi-monthly, or even quarterly.

    I think members would need some information up front about the book and some guidance on areas/themes to look for so they can prepare themselves for the discussion. But if the demand is there, I think that could be fun.

  4. Sarah Says:

    In the past we’ve done a long book once a year. We’d give everyone two months to read it and not meet in the middle at all. Often people would read it last minute real fast in time for our meeting anyway. Our 2012 list has several long books. This year is the first time we’ve revealed the full year of books ahead of time and first year we are doing 12 books. (this will be our 4th year) The months with longer books we put after SHORT ones and on months that had 5 weeks between meetings instead of just 4. If I remember I’ll comment back with how it works out at the end of the year. We are a casual group yet one that meets regularly. Our books are SO varied and with ppls schedules we don’t have the same ladies at each meeting. But i think this year we’re asking them to step it up a notch and we’ll see how the true “readers” are :-)


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