Book Group Toolbox #67: How Literature Works
Posted by: Kaite Stover
I’m always prowling the new fiction and nonfiction shelves looking for “the next big book group thing”. Since I’m usually looking for narrative non-fiction, I tend to focus on the 300s, 600s, and 900s.
But when I remind myself to browse the 400s and 800s, I’m always pleasantly surprised by what’s on the shelf. My last trip down the 800 aisle turned up my new favorite resource for book group facilitators, How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts by John Sutherland.
Both newcomers and seasoned book group leaders will find useful, accessible, and humorous ways to present some high-toned literary concepts to book group readers. The slim, paperback volume from Oxford University Press is divided into six sections. The first section will the most interesting for new participants or discussion leaders and a great refresher for experienced facilitators.
Sutherland explains, with clarity and wit, terms such as Mimesis, Hermeneutics, and Intentionalism. Most book group folks probably won’t discuss these literary terms, but if they turn up in conversation, it’s great to have a working understanding of them.
The entries I think most readers and leaders will find useful are The Classic, Gothic, and Narrative/Story. Book groups are always wrestling with the conundrum ‘what is a classic?’ Sutherland references T.S. Eliot and literary critic Frank Kermode on the term ‘classic’ and provides conversation prodding issues for readers to contemplate as they decide for themselves what is a classic.
One of the entries that has stayed with me is Narrative/Story. Sutherland talks about the difference between the terms and I’ll be a better leader of discussion while I think about these differences as I’m reading. In Sutherland’s words, “Story directs attention to what is told. Narrative directs attention to how it is told.” After reading this segment, go to page 84 and read the entry on Style.
And for readers and leaders who like a challenging quiz, turn to page 102 and take Sutherland’s “How well read are you?” quiz. It’s not easy.