By March 25, 2008 2 Comments Read More →


Book group leaders who usually focus their discussions on novels may be hesitant about trying a nonfiction title.  At first glance, it may seem as if the preparation process will need to be very different and therefore more difficult.  However, even though you won’t be dealing with a typical plot and cast of characters as imagined by the author, you may find yourself encountering some similarities with those books you’re more accustomed to discussing.

For instance, instead of plot, think “story.”  Often in nonfiction, the author is reporting a story, only in this case the details are real, not made-up.  This aspect can lead to a discussion of the facts presented — are there enough to make the situation seem real and understandable, and if not, what seems to be missing?  The issue of accuracy is extremely important in nonfiction, so attention must be paid to the author’s credentials and sources.

Then, moving into the story, we may meet a variety of people, who serve a similar purpose to characters in a novel.  We can talk about them in the same way we approach fictional characters — are they interesting in a particular way, are they sympathetic, what role do they play in the development of the “story”?

When we look at the subject matter of the book, we may want to ask, what is to be learned from this account?  Was there anything in it that surprised you?  Did you agree with the author’s perspective and conclusions?

 Of course, we can always focus a bit on the author’s style and talk about whether the book was readable.  What made it interesting?  Or where did it misfire?  Was it biased or preachy?  Was it too technical, too detailed?

 Nonfiction titles often contain photographs or illustrations which handily lend themselves to conversations about how they enhance the work — and either support our responses as readers or leave us wanting something more.

What have you learned from your experiences of discussing nonfiction books that might help others as they venture into this new discussion territory?  I know I’ve just skimmed the surface here — obviously, there’s much more that could be suggested, so please share your comments!



About the Author:

Ted Balcom lives in Arlington Heights, IL and conducts workshops on leading book discussions, about which he has also published a book: Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide (American Library Association, 1992).


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  1. Hi Ted.
    You’re right: Non-fiction is tough for book clubs, although some books like Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat have discussion questions. But, lord knows, you need a Ph.D to answer those things (for any book).

    You’re also right, though, that non-fiction usually has a narrative arc, and sometimes generic fiction questions can work well–especially for historical works on the order of, say, David McCollough.

    Nonetheless, my site gets a lot of hits looking for non-fiction discussion help. I finally got some non-fiction questions up a week or so ago. I’m hoping they’re helpful, and I’d love some feedback, please.

    Also, feel free to delet this message. It comes across as a plug. Won’t hurt my feelings. And by the way, Kaite Stover gave LitLovers a nice mention last fall sometime. I still get referrals from it. Thanks! This is a great blog.

    Molly Lundquist

  2.' Vicky Harding says:

    Is there a discussion guide for Darby Nelson’s book For Love of Lakes?

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