Making Choices

Whenever book discussion leaders get together to exchange war stories, which they frequently do at meetings of the Adult Reading Round Table, the conversation turns to the topic of which titles have been good choices for recent discussions and which ones haven’t worked as well.  What I have to share is a little unusual, since my situation as a book discussion leader is also a little unusual:  I am a library volunteer and I select titles for my group from a list of book sets that the library staff has purchased and used in previous discussion programs.  I don’t have to use all of these titles — but I do have to pick 11 of them every year (my group doesn’t meet in December).  The other hitch is that the titles have to be chosen several months in advance of the actual discussion dates, so that they can be reserved and then publicized in a bookmark that outlines the schedule for the coming year.

Lately I have been finding this procedure somewhat challenging, in that one of the criteria that I have set for myself as a group leader is to feature books by authors of both sexes (preferably on an alternating basis), and the staff tends to choose more titles by female authors than by males.  Also, they frequently repeat some of the same authors, which again is something I am not inclined to do.  (One Jodi Picoult or Tracy Chevalier book is fine, two are O.K., but after that, I want to move on to discussing the work of someone else.)

Also, as a guy leading a group populated mostly by women, I am not particularly comfortable focusing on books by female authors that wind up painting negative pictures of men.  Similarly, I don’t want to talk about “chick lit,” either — sorry if that sounds sexist, but I just can’t get excited about putting together a list of questions for say,  Angry Housewives Eating Bonbons.   

Another category that can present problems is the kind of book that contains extended descriptions of steamy sexual encounters.  Content of this nature always calls for sensitivity on the part of the discussion leader, but especially when that person is a man in a room full of women.  A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick, received great reviews, but after I read it, I wondered exactly how I would deal with so many detailed descriptions of wild and perverse couplings.  Finally I decided I’d be better off giving that book a pass.

Ultimately I’ve found you can manage to make such an unusual selection process work:  that is, choosing books to discuss from a group of titles initially selected by others.  Sometimes you end up using books you probably wouldn’t have chosen, under different circumstances.  But upon reflection, perhaps there is a value in the way this all works out — my group members often say that left to their own devices, they would never have chosen to read the featured selection.  Now I realize the same situation can also apply to me — I may wind up feeling truly gratified that I led a discussion of a book I wouldn’t have picked, had it not been on the list given to me by the library staff.

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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).

2 Comments on "Making Choices"

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  1. oaktongb@gmail.com' GreatBooker says:

    Our Great Books book club (at Oakton Community College) has struggled with the book selection process. We recently switched to the ‘regular attendees’ suggest/lead a book method. This is the list we came up with:

    August – Candide by Voltaire
    September – Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
    October – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
    November – The Sound and the Fury by W. Faulkner
    December – The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck
    January A Room With A View by E.M. Forster
    February Persuasion by Jane Austen

    If you’re interested, please feel free to join us for any of the selections in the future. We would love to get some discussion leader advice.

    Sincerely,
    Rose Wagner

  2. I have decided to choose titles from the New York Times Notable list for the previous years. To narrow down the selections, I go through and only choose titles that are available as an audiobook in addition to print. This takes all the personal choice out of the selection and I have found it to be very exciting for all.
    We discover so much that none of us would have chosen and it keeps us abreast of what is happening now in literary fiction.

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