Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Running a book group

I love discussing a book with others who've read it (and sometimes even if they haven't), and so do many people, as evidenced by the popularity of book groups.  A book group without a specific focus in terms of a theme or genre works perfectly well, but there are endless ways to narrow the focus a bit:  mystery, classics, science fiction, book to film, nonfiction, history, cooking, etc.  I've run nonfiction book groups at two libraries.  Doing so has been one of my favorite experiences as a librarian.  I've also always found it challenging--from choosing which books to discuss to formulating discussion questions to keeping a discussion going and interesting and both reining in tangent conversations and drawing out more reserved participants.

There are quite a few things to consider when choosing a book.  Many highly regarded nonfiction books exceed 500 or 600 pages, but I don't choose ones longer than that so that people won't feel overwhelmed in terms of finishing the book within a month.  So I set aside otherwise good ideas such as Far from the Tree:  Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon or Catherine the Great:  Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie because they're simply too long to expect people to finish in a couple of weeks to a month's time with everything else (including other books!) they have going on in their lives.  I encourage people to come to the meeting even if they haven't finished a book (which is not as important for a nonfiction book discussion as it is for fiction) but obviously people would prefer to finish it before the discussion. It was recently suggested to me that longer books might be split into two monthly meetings, but I can't attest to how well that would work because I haven't (yet) tried it.

I look at a lot of best-of-the-year booklists for both the most acclaimed and the books that are most present in people's consciousness.  Books I choose have good critical and reader reviews and ideally some buzz around them as well.  That is more something to keep in mind when you're trying to build a group--which titles would most grab people's attention?  Once you've got a core group, perhaps you can relax a bit and include slightly more esoteric titles.  I also keep my eye on award winners (such as the Pulitzer and National Book Award).  A book winning an award piques my interest in that I want to judge for myself whether it deserves the distinction--and hear whether the other book group members think so.

Another consideration in choosing books for discussion is diversity.  With nonfiction groups, I have a little bit of bias in terms of what I'm interested in reading about, but it's important to choose books that stretch across a wide swath of what nonfiction books have to offer.  I've never been big on science, so I shy away from books that get too technical into that, but otherwise I choose a good variety.  I always look to what type of book I haven't chosen before, and being a library-sponsored group, what books might bring in curious new members as well.

It is important to come prepared with discussion questions, but I usually will not rely too much on them except if need be when there is a lull in the conversation.  I prefer to stay attuned to the direction in which the conversation naturally goes (unless it veers too far off topic).  I see discussion questions more as insurance to keep a conversation going than a structure that needs to be adhered to.  I like to start the discussion by asking whether people like the book and what their general impressions are.  The downside to this is that it puts people on the spot.  But I just throw the question out there and people can respond however they want--and it's not as though we have to formally go around the table.

Often the publisher will supply discussion questions that one can find online.  If those aren't available, other discussion groups or libraries may have questions posted online.  If there are no discussion questions to be found for a particular book, I use a combination of generic questions (for nonfiction, in the case of my group) and original questions.  Even if publisher questions are available, I come up with a few questions myself based on my reactions.  That way, I can talk with more enthusiasm and conviction.

Recommended web resources:
Book Group Buzz
Lit Lovers
Reading Group Guides