All I Have to Do is Theme

Yeah, I’ve heard it before: Your book group wants to achieve the shared joy that only comes from reading the same book together then collectively beating it into the ground with at least an hour of discussion. It’s the current style for whole communities to join together in reading One Book, why shouldn’t your group do the same? Besides, that’s the way you’ve always done it…

You might want to think twice.

There are many advantages to a different format, one in which each meeting of your group addresses a theme. Preferrably, a short list of books that fit the theme is compiled before each meeting, perhaps with a few thematic questions to discuss. Members then make their own selections. At the meeting, someone gives a short introduction to the theme, then discussion proceeds around the group, with each member introducing the book or books they chose to read. Here are twelve good reasons to consider the thematic format:

  1. Some freedom of choice in selection will keep your readers more happy. When they’re happy, they are more likely to attend regularly.
  2. Based on their own schedules, readers can choose which months to attempt long, difficult books and which will require a short, light selection. In a pinch, one can even choose to introduce an old favorite instead of reading something new.
  3. The breadth of books you’ll be exposed to will expand everyone’s reading. You’ll never go home from a meeting without a few new ideas.
  4. If there’s something you’ve been dying to read, you can probably find a theme in an upcoming meeting where it will fit. 
  5. The tone of meetings will be more positive on the whole if readers are responsible for their own selections. You’ll avoid those awkward meetings where some readers love the book and others really hate it.
  6. The thematic format divides discussion more equitably, as each reader in your group will at least speak about his or her selection. Everyone will develop enhanced skill at introducing a book to others.
  7. There’s rarely a dull moment in thematic meetings, and if there is, wait five minutes! You’ll be on to a new book. Thematic groups usually pass books around the circle, so there’s plenty of visual and tactile pleasure to be had.
  8. No more fighting for the three copies of the book at the local library or the two copies for sale at the bookstore you all use.
  9. Themed book grouping fits with the goals of libraries. It encourages circulation of a broader cross-section of the collection and provides a pleasant opportunity for librarians to provide readers’ advisory.
  10. Many excellent books don’t make good selections for shared discussion. But those same books work well in a thematic group. If you like plot-driven novels, lighter reading, or many genres, you may find that a thematic group works much better.
  11. If your group is fracturing because members have different tastes, thematic discussions can accommodate, even benefit from those diverse preferences. And diversity in books might encourage more diversity in your membership.
  12. Worried about losing depth? Perhaps this will be a problem, but in most cases it is simply shifted: Instead of deeply discussing a book, you’ll get a thorough understanding of a theme and how it has been treated in literature.

This approach isn’t for everyone, but it’s a good alternative that will work better for many groups. At the very least, your group should try an occasional theme instead of always sharing one book.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

1 Comment on "All I Have to Do is Theme"

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  1. hwesley@bham.lib.al.us' Holley says:

    This is the type of group I lead at my library and the patrons love it! I occasionally get questions from people who don’t really understand what we do but when I get them to come to a meeting, they’re hooked!

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