By September 21, 2010 1 Comments Read More →

Deal Breakers for Book Groups, Part 4 of 4

This is the last of a four-part series of posts I began (here) at the start of the month. I’ve been looking at qualities in books that may cause book groups to stay away, and here are the last three on my list, some of the trickiest to manage:


Each book group must work to determine its own threshold for sex, violence, dark humor, and other potentially offensive themes. On one hand, you don’t want to neuter your group’s reading, but on the other, you don’t want to lose members who are consistently uncomfortable with selections. It probably isn’t necessary to set policies about strong content in advance, but if you notice that discussion flags whenever such content is present, your group’s leadership may need to screen titles more carefully, leaving time for someone (preferably someone who isn’t too squeamish) to read certain books a few months before they are assigned to the full group. For most groups, such content shouldn’t block discussion, but instead require more sensitive facilitation.


I’ve always felt that the carping about Oprah’s book group selections being too depressing was a little misguided, and frankly, I feel a little sorry for readers who always need upbeat books. Reading about sad subjects or confronting conflict in good literature helps readers to develop their own ethics, morality, and coping skills. By reading about the challenges of others, we become emotionally prepared to handle our own challenges when they come. Facing the darker side of life can ultimately be cathartic, helping readers release the pain from their own tragedies. A book group, where one can process such content and the feelings it raises in the company of supportive friends, may be the best place to take on tragic material like the aftermath of crime, abuse, bigotry, illness, or death.

That said, groups do need to find a balance between lightness and dark. Reading only heavy subject matter may become oppressive or begin to numb your members’ responses. If you’ve got a couple of sad books coming up, make sure to throw in a lighter title to cleanse the palate. Be sensitive to the life struggles of your individual members. If for instance, portrayals of rape, child abuse, or sad declines from Alzheimer’s disease have provoked strong personal reactions from one of your members in the past, it may be best to steer clear of those subjects in the future.


Nobody would suggest that every book needs to be the equivalent of Ulysses, and I know that some groups are designed with the express mission of pursuing fun and escapism, but I hope that literary challenges won’t be a deal breaker for your group. Elements such as non-linear, intentionally disorienting plots, unlikable or untrustworthy protagonists, or extreme approaches to style may not make for fast reading, but they can lead to great discussions. By all means, seek balance between tough books and lighter selections, but your readers will find real satisfaction and pride, at least occasionally, in conquering a complex title. A good technique for facilitators is to forewarn readers about some of the more challenging aspects of upcoming titles. In discussion, treat complexities as well intentioned, not as attempts by the author to show off. Ask the group directly why the author chose to employ such devices, and don’t settle for sneers or easy answers.

In the end, I hope your group will not let its list of deal breakers grow too long. You’ll be happier in the long run if you can maintain flexibility and the sense that you are collectively capable of  taking on all kinds of books. The key is to keep a sense of balance and contrast in your reading list. With that approach, you’ll keep your discussions fresh and your group flourishing.



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 "Deal Breakers for Book Groups, Part 4 of 4"

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  1.' hannah Moore says:

    how can I mail these tips to my book group? They are just what we need right now to revive our flagging group (after more than a decade).


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