What They Wanted to Talk About

As book discussion leaders, have you found that sometimes what you planned to focus on in the discussion isn’t always what your group members want to talk about?  During the past two weeks, I’ve led two discussions — one at the library, with my regular group, and the other at Dominican University, with a class of library science students.  I’d done my usual preparation — reading, research, and formulation of discussion questions — but in both cases, the groups chose topics to discuss that I hadn’t thought of.

The first discussion was on The Birth of Venus, Sarah Dunant’s absorbing tale of forbidden love in Renaissance Florence, and even though I came with plenty of thought-provoking questions to raise about the story, the group was interested in exploring contemporary parallels to the mistreatment of women described in the book.  We had a stimulating discussion nevertheless, and I made a mental note to add “contemporary parallels” to my list of potential discussion topics for future books.

But when I met with the library science group to discuss Raymond Chandler’s classic hardboiled detective story, The Big Sleep, a week later, the students didn’t want to talk about contemporary parallels — they were fascinated by the cinematic aspects of Chandler’s writing style.  One participant compared the book to film noir, and I hastened to explain that The Big Sleep, which was Chandler’s first novel, was published before the wave of film noir dramas that swept through 1940s cinema and actually may have contributed to the development of the style, in that it was later adapted into a famous Bogart-Bacall star vehicle.

The students weren’t particularly concerned with the rough treatment of women depicted in The Big Sleep — it was “sort of what you’d expect for that era” — which showed me once again that what especially intrigues one group may have minimal interest for another.  This element of unpredictability — it’s always there, no matter how hard one tries to figure out how the discussion will flow in advance — plays a major part in keeping book discussions interesting and challenging for the leader.  You learn something from every discussion experience, and you fervently hope you can apply the lessons later on.

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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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