Choosing the Right Book to Discuss, Part 2

It’s personal. It can’t be helped. Ultimately the monthly selection for any reading group boils down to personal choices. The major factor in choosing will always be the interests of the selector and a particular cluster of readers.

I’ve been the selector for University Book Store’s book club for five years. I’m no exception. My choices are limited by what genuinely interests me: novels and memoirs from around the world. I try to stretch as much as possible, but not beat myself up over my limited focus. I’ve learned to lean toward shorter books, so I can read them twice. I go through maybe a dozen advances a month, trying to find realistic, well-shaped personal narratives, true or not, that give me a rush of satisfaction when I finish them, with characters and incidents and insights that linger in the mind.

Realism

Most of my life I have loved fantasy elements. Since 9/11, fantasy elements no longer interest me. I close a book the minute I discover it’s being told from beyond the grave, involves sexy vampires, or the narrator is a dog. I feel like we’re all surrounded by fantasies, anyway, like terrorism and democracy, and it’s up to us to see through the illusions. The challenge is to see what is really there.

If I’m going to ask other readers to invest time in reading, if I’m going to listen to an exciting conversation that matters, I want no interference from non-realistic elements, no angelic aid, no romantic time-traveler, no magical door into another dimension. For a good book conversation, nothing is better than a smart, honest author bravely writing from the heart about real concerns. Tell us a story we can believe, with real characters facing real dilemmas, which members of a book club can then endorse, criticize, praise or lampoon based on their own real experience.

First Person

A story told from the limited perspective of a single point of view makes for the best discussion. A novel written in first person is just like a member of the club telling a story. You discuss the story, and you discuss the storyteller. Is she honest? Is she fair? Is she lying? Is she hiding something? Is she in denial about something? It opens up a second layer for discussion.

Instead of being told a character’s motives by an omniscient author – so-and-so thinks this, so-and-so feels that, which is the kind of thing in real life you never, ever know for sure – you have only the narrator’s word for what is happening. You have to guess at why people do things, just like the rest of the human race. First person narration includes the ignorance of the storyteller and the storyteller’s misunderstandings. It creates the illusion of a fellow human being talking directly to the reader, with all the limitations and shortcomings that entails. It intensifies the intimacy of the reading act.

Moral Issues

Every day we face choices involving goodness. Moral issues are the spine of a book conversation. Why do we do what we do? What is worth doing? There are so many fascinating answers. What a reading group needs is literature that deals with choices, beliefs, and ethics, the decisions that make up our lives. As we read about issues that matter to us, we lay our own judgments out for changing and growth.

That’s the recipe I think works best, from the five years I’ve been reading group selector. Choose books for discussion that see the world through someone else’s eyes, involving the insights and limitations of human perception. Someone once said, “Misunderstanding is the root of all evil,” and that single, sad truth is at the heart of the best books for discussion. We constantly misjudge people. A good book discussed in an effective reading group opens everyone up. Each individual reader encounters the limited perception of the narrator, and by sharing our understanding of someone else’s vision of life, we enrich our own.

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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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