Choosing the Right Book to Discuss, Part 1

Say this is your first reading group. You’ve got five committed friends, but don’t know what to read. The health of a reading group lies in its choices. Not all good books spark a good discussion.

How do you decide what to read together? In many clubs, members take turns choosing the titles. If it’s a gathering of real book lovers, this can be a stimulating exchange, turning each other on to your favorite experiences. But it’s a serious problem if members are unfamiliar with books, if they’re selecting in the dark. Choosing from bestseller lists can be disastrous. Some delightful books have absolutely nothing to discuss. Finding the right book as a conversation piece is different from choosing a book for personal enjoyment. Democratic choosing of titles has killed many a club.

Genre books are frequently not the best choices. That doesn’t mean they don’t provide excellent entertainment. It just means that all-too-often there’s nothing much to talk about except the genre itself. Simply a good story – say, a good mystery, a courtroom drama, a fantasy epic or an edge-of-your-seat thriller – can give you wonderful hours of reading pleasure and about fifteen minutes worth of conversation.

For the best discussions to occur, there needs to be some issue that’s ambiguous, some value that’s debatable, some character whose behavior is controversial. Something on which readers can differ in their opinions. Some issue that causes a revelation of personal values.

Try this: choose one member to be the selector for a couple months. Make it someone who will happily take plenty of time to be familiar with the best titles, someone bold enough to get ideas from booksellers and librarians. In the book club at University Book Store in Seattle, I choose the monthly title. Our club’s angle is the best new title of the month from around the world. I read as many advances as I can. I try to find the best reading experiences that are also discussable. The minute you have at least two sides to an opinion, a spark ignites the group. One smart woman thinks Gilead is boring, religious nonsense. Two sensible readers think the hero of The Bad Girl is a fool. Two readers don’t believe Russell Banks’ narrator in The Darling is a realistic woman. That’s all it takes to trigger a great conversation.

 When a book works, the clash of opposing opinions causes everyone’s concept of the book to deepen and change. That’s why you participate in a good reading group, to share personal responses to a provocative reading experience.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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