A Different Kind of Book Club

The Adult Reading Round Table (ARRT) is a group of librarians and library workers in the Chicagoland area who meet regularly to develop their readers advisory skills.  One of the group’s ongoing activities is genre study, and for the past two and a half years, members have been focusing on nonfiction leisure reading interests.  Every other month, an ARRT sub-group has been meeting for two-hour discussions centering on such topics as True Crime, Memoirs, and Natural History.

Joyce Saricks and Roberta Johnson are co-leaders of the genre study, and they have designed a format that requires every participant to read a specific book the leaders have selected, which typifies the nonfiction category under examination.  (For instance, for the True Crime discussion, everyone was asked to read Truman Capote’s classic, In Cold Blood.)  Also, each participant is urged to choose another book that fits the category, read it, and share it with the group.

At the meetings, the featured book is discussed first, then participants chime in with their own choices.  The group members are told to be prepared to discuss the appeal of the books, rather than to give plot summaries.  In considering the appeal of the works, participants look at the frame, tone, characterization, storyline, and pacing, as well as responding to such questions as “What does the author do best?” and “What makes the book popular?”  The participants talk about whether they fell into the book immediately or discovered what was going on at a more leisurely pace.  They sum up their sharing of authors and titles by suggesting other books that are brought to mind, as well as what type of reader might especially enjoy reading these books.

In past years, ARRT genre study activities focused squarely on fiction, looking at popular genres such as romance, suspense, and fantasy.  The move to nonfiction was prompted by an interest in drawing reference librarians into the group — staffers who worked regularly with nonfiction, who perhaps didn’t read much fiction, and who weren’t particularly aware of readers advisory principles, but who were in a position to recommend nonfiction titles to library users.  What began as a two-year study is now extending into its third year and probably could keep going for several more.

Saricks and Johnson stress increased knowledge of nonfiction as one of the primary benefits of the study.  Participants also gain a sense of the range of each topic, along with key authors and titles, as well as an understanding of what readers enjoy about these books,  Finally, they are provided with  links to other fiction and nonfiction titles fans may also enjoy.

The meetings are held at two suburban libraries, one northwest of Chicago, the other southwest of the city;  this is done to equalize the commuting distance for members who must travel from the far north or the far south regions.  A secretary takes notes of the discussions and provides copies via e-mail to all members, along with lists of the many books that are discussed.

Perhaps this project — which participants describe as stimulating, fun, and useful –could work as a model for Book Group Buzz readers to try in their own communities!

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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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