Whether you are the official leader and facilitator of a book group or just a helpful participant, it’s important to have resources to which you can turn when the discussion isn’t working. Here are four useful questions to keep ready in your conversational toolbox.
Question 1: To whom do you think this book would appeal? To what kind of reader would you recommend it?
When to use it: When the discussion seems unduly or lopsidedly critical
It’s OK if your group doesn’t love every book it reads, but simply piling on negative comments isn’t constructive or interesting. Also, it may offend group members who liked the book but haven’t had a chance to defend it. Instead of simply talking about why you don’t like the book, it might be more interesting to look at who the appropriate audience is, and what they might be seeing in the title that you are not.
Question 2: Which character did you find the most interesting?
When to use it: When the discussion slows or is lacking in specifics
The behavior of people is almost always interesting, and the choices that characters make are often the key to a book. Learning, through vicarious experience, to understand ourselves and other people may be one of the most important things that we can get out of reading. This is an easy question for most readers to answer that quickly leads to more specific discussion of the book. Instead of “interesting,” you could also ask which character is the most frustrating, dull, frightening, or funny. Make sure you follow up after the first answer and ask if anyone else has a differing opinion.
Question 3: What do you think the author was trying to achieve? What feelings did she/he intend to create in the reader?
When to ask it: When the group is missing the point; when they are critical of a book for creating exactly the reaction that the author intended
Great books aren’t always warm and fuzzy. Look back at your reading history: You will discover books that you didn’t like on first reading because they made you angry, frightened, confused, sad, or otherwise upset. But there’s a good chance that those books have stuck with you. Reading them created feelings in you and made you more alive. The books may have helped you to understand your emotions, undergo catharsis, or handle difficulties when they occurred in real life. When a book creates a negative reaction in your group, stop and think about it: Are you criticizing the author for achieving exactly what they intended? Regardless, examining the author’s choices is fruitful ground for discussion.
Question 4: Do you see any of the author’s personal experience reflected in the book?
When to use it: To add depth to your discussion; to get a broader look at the author’s life and work
Of course asking this question assumes that somebody in your group looked up the author’s biography or has read some of their previous work. If this isn’t happening, you might want to do more homework in the future. After reading a book, particularly if you like it, it will be natural to be curious about the author’s life and other works. Such discussion will always add depth, and on some occasions, (look at the lives of Anne Perry, Gore Vidal, Ian Fleming or Lisa See, for instance) will make the discussion of their books MUCH more interesting.
I’ll be back with more questions for enlivening a flagging discussion next week.