Reading Guides: the Assignment

Monday night, after our book club’s delightful discussion of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, I announced to the members gathered around the fireside at University Book Store that next month we would be trying something different. At the end of July, when we discuss Sasa Stanisic’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, we’ll be using a reading guide – in this case, a guide that I’ve just been hired to design myself. After trying it out on my book group, I’ll make the final adjustments, work out a last few bugs, and then send it to the book’s publisher.

Turpentine  Today I received three sample reading guides from Grove/Atlantic to give me an idea of what they wanted. Up High in the Trees  Two of the books – Turpentine and Up High in the Trees – I’m not familiar with. I certainly know the third title, Sherman Alexie’s The Indian Killer, and stock it in our campus bookstore, but I haven’t read it. Let’s see if these samples can give some definition to this nebulous thing called a reading guide.  Indian Killer

To my surprise, all three samples are short and quite simple – a numbered list of a couple dozen “thought questions.” In a real sense, these aren’t study guides or reading guides, either. They’re discussion guides. Their goal is to highlight the ambiguous or debatable elements of the novel, the controversial or provocative moments that might spark an insight or difference of opinion. The questions are designed to elicit the feelings and opinions of the reader.

This is a relief to me, because an actual study guide would have had to include more. There is apparently no historical background section, so I won’t be expected to explain the war in Bosnia, thank goodness, or what happened to the real village on which the novel is based. That spares me a hefty chunk of very depressing research. None of the reading guides had interviews with the author or a biographical sketch. All they really consist of is 21-24 questions about character motivations, reader reactions, and literary techniques.

These are more facilitator aids and conversation-starters. The purpose is not to dispense enriching supplementary information. It’s goal is to trigger discussion, the questions designed to deepen the reader’s appreciation of the novel’s complexities and subtext.

In Nick’s Notes, my own private study guides that I create for University Book Store, I have veered to the opposite extreme – dispensing with topics of discussion altogether, Nick’s Notes are simply a tool to induce memory recall and provide the vocabulary of the book. To do that, I create an outline of chapter-by-chapter plot summaries, followed by the name of each character where they first appear and notable quotations from the text. Just the facts. The characters and places and page numbers you need at your fingertips to be able to talk about the book.

As for the topics to discuss, I generate them through a technique used in recovery support groups – it’s called a check-in. The evening’s conversation begins as each member “checks in” with a short two-minute “stand” on the book, how they feel about their experience with it, what they liked, what they didn’t like. As each member does this, themes of interest quickly become apparent. That’s where I, as facilitator, guide the discussion. In addition, I’ll admit, I usually come loaded with one or two questions of my own, ones often without answers. These aren’t hard to dream up. If you’re a thoughtful reader, questions pop into your head all the time. What made her go there? Why did she believe him? Who’s telling the truth?

But now I need to provide a kind of conversation ladder, a step-by-step stimulation for a book group meeting on this sometimes difficult, always thoughtful, frequently hilarious book. I need to come up with twenty-four challenging questions that will spark a thoughtful evening of conversation. A template of questions to examine how the novel is put together and what’s on the author’s mind. Actually, with a book as rich and delightful as this one, creating a reading guide is going to be fun.

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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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