By December 8, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

Does Size Matter?

Whenever I lead a workshop on planning and conducting book discussions, one question in particular inevitably comes up:  what is the ideal size for a book discussion?  My answer, based on my experiences, is 12-15 people — large enough to provide for a variety of opinions, but not so big that the leader has difficulty allowing everyone to participate.  Larger groups can present another problem — clusters of participants breaking off and talking among themselves, creating a distraction while another group member is trying to speak, thus pulling the focus of the discussion away from whatever aspect of the book is being examined.

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I approached last Thursday’s lecture/book discussion in the Readers Advisory class at Dominican University, where I had recently been informed only four students and the teacher would be in attendance.  Every semester it’s my job to visit the class and present an hour-long session on leading book discussions, followed by an actual discussion of a book the class members have read in advance — I lead the discussion as a demonstration of many of the points I’ve raised in the preceding talk.  Usually there are about 12-15 students (the golden number) assembled, which fits smoothly into my standard operating procedure.  But this time, the situation was going to be different, and I sensed my mettle was about to be tested.

The book I had selected for the discussion was Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, which, as many of you already know, is an excellent discussion choice.  It is one of those books which, in the words of a colleague, “almost discusses itself” — meaning that it has all those properties we discussion leaders are constantly seeking in the titles we choose: well developed characters, a compelling story, an intriguing setting, vivid writing and thought-provoking themes.  I especially try to find a book of this nature for these classes because it helps me to demonstrate what can come out of a satisfying book discussion.  If the ingredients are there to begin with, the work is far less taxing.

I am happy to report that the discussion went well, and I think it was a combination of the book and the interest and the energy of the participants.  Reflecting back on the session, I have concluded that the size of the group probably doesn’t count for as much as the quality of the book being discussed and the willingness of the participants to explore the material and involve themselves in the give-and-take of the discussion experience.

For those of you who may be considering using Water for Elephants in one of your own discussions, I’ll share how I approached the examination of this book.  I decided to emphasize to the students that the important factors in talking about a book are the story and how the story is told, an idea that I think is key to the conduct of all successful discussions.  Then I presented them with a series of generic questions as a way to delve into this story and the storytelling techniques employed by Sara Gruen:  What impressed you about this book?  What disappointed you?  What made you curious?  What confused you?  What upset you?  How did you feel the author handled character development and plotting?  How did you respond to the author’s style?  Did you like the use of photographs in this book?  Would you recommend this book across the Readers Service Desk and if so, to what sort of reader — and what would you highlight as the book’s greatest appeal?

I feel that questions of this nature can be used with almost any book you choose to discuss, and they inevitably lead to other more specific questions about the book and the author.  One of the best insights that came out of this discussion was the parallel that one student drew between the treatment of animals in the circus and the treatment of elderly residents in a nursing home.  It’s delicious moments like this, when someone in the group makes an especially illuminating comment, that underlines why I am so drawn to reading books and talking about them — and encouraging others to do the same.




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).

Post a Comment