The First Question

Recently I led a book discussion with a group of library science students at Dominican University.  The teacher of the class, my good friend Joyce Saricks, asked me if I had a favorite question with which to begin a book discussion.  She said that another friend of ours, well-known reading enthusiast Nancy Pearl, always began her discussions by asking the meaning of the book’s title and if it was an appropriate name for the story.

The novel we were discussing that day was The People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks’ absorbing tale about a sacred text that passes through many hands in many countries over several centuries.  Since the story focuses on both the contemporary conservator who is studying the book for clues about its past history and, in flashback episodes, the individuals who attempt to protect the book and preserve it for future generations, the book group decided the title was extremely descriptive and indeed appropriate, noting that the protagonist who is examining the book in the present ultimately becomes one of the “people” referenced in the title, every bit as much as the former possessors of the precious volume.

In response to Joyce’s question, I indicated that I didn’t have a favorite first question, but one that I frequently use is based on drawing out the readers’ strongest responses to the book — “If you particularly enjoyed this book, what did it offer that you found most satisfying?” or “If the book disappointed you, how would you define its most glaring weakness?”  I have found that first off,  book group participants most want to share their opinions about the story — whether they loved it or hated it — before we get around to talking about how well the characters were developed, what was distinctive about the author’s style, and whether or not the plot was believable.

Interestingly enough, I thought the library science students would enjoy The People of the Book, but they weren’t particularly enthusiastic about it.  Most of them didn’t like the protagonist (they thought she was rather shallow and whiny), especially when she was contrasted to the characters featured in the flashbacks, who really endured horrendous situations as they struggled to survive. 

I usually choose a work of literary fiction for these class discussions, and maybe that’s a mistake.  I’ve found that many of the students are genre readers (they gravitate toward mystery, fantasy and sci-fi), and they probably wouldn’t ever be inclined to pick up a so-called “literary” tale.  When they’re “forced” to read one for the book discussion, it may seem like swallowing bad-tasting medicine; they’ve been told it’s good for them to be exposed to this stuff, but they still don’t like it.  On the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing, in that they are being taught to read outside their comfort zone and become more familiar with different authors and different types of writing.  If I don’t push them to read say, Geraldine Brooks, perhaps they wouldn’t know she exists, and after all, she did win the Pulitzer Prize!

I have used all three of Brooks’ novels in book discussions —Year of Wonders and March, in addition to The People of the Book.  I personally think she is a wonderful writer, and her books, which are full of fascinating historical detail and thought-provoking insights, provide rich opportunities for satisfying discussions.  I urge you to read her work and discuss it, regardless of how you decide to formulate that all-important “first question.”

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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).

1 Comment on "The First Question"

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  1. ricklibrarian@gmail.com' Rick Roche says:

    It is interesting that the library students were not enthusiastic about Brooks’ book. I think I’d prefer our discussion leaders to be generalists (at least in small libraries) who enjoy many kinds of books and be able to relate well to the many readers who attend. Genre specialists may do better at large libraries where they are balanced by staff with other interests. Whatever the case, remaining true to your own opinion is very important. We don’t want librarians faking enthusiasm. Still, I think we should all be challenged to read outside our boxes. That is when we grow as librarians, readers, and caring individuals.

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