The Importance of Reading and Book Groups

Anyone who is in a book group and who hasn’t yet read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, should not delay another day.  This book, about a book group during the Second World War on the isle of Guernsey, is a natural choice for a discussion because of the way it speaks directly to why people value book groups and the activity of reading.

When my group discussed the book earlier this month, we found ourselves moving beyond the story and looking at why reading is important to us, just as it was to the characters in the novel.  Just for fun, I asked the group members what their reaction was to meeting someone who says they “don’t read.”  Everyone agreed that it was not favorable, although several confessed this made them feel like “snobs.”  Several people said they could not imagine their lives without reading — it was that vital to them.  Another participant said she felt sorry for people who don’t read.  “They don’t know what they’re missing,” she commented, shaking her head. 

When someone says they have no time for reading, one participant remarked, “Oh, but they have time to watch television!”  Making time for reading is a choice, the group affirmed, and one member, a young mother with two small children, said she made time to read as a break from the responsibilities of child rearing; at the same time, she has limited herself to watching only one television program a week.  Yet she said she knew of other young parents who felt they had no time to read — or watch TV.

Another group member pointed out there are different types of reading — people who read magazines or newspapers or informational web sites still must be counted as readers.  This led to a series of reflections on reading for pleasure versus reading for specific information.  When we moved to talking about the difference between fiction readers and nonfiction readers, a distinction was made among the various types of nonfiction.  Is reading a cookbook still a form of reading?

We also focused on readers’ reactions to a specific work, how they vary, and whether one can always predict the response of another well known to them after a lengthy experience of membership in the same book group.  And from there we meandered to whether or not we keep lists of books we have read and lists of books we want to read and how often we consult those lists.  One member shared how she clips reviews and tears out pages from magazines to keep in a special file; another has a list of titles that have caught her interest contained in her cell phone.

So many books, so little time…especially as we grow older.  But it was certainly fun to talk about and to learn how our fellow book group members value both the experience of reading and their time in the book group.  And it all came about because we read a book about people who were held prisoners in their own village and who found in reading — and talking about what they’d read — a means of survival and a way of growing closer and more deeply involved in the lives of their neighbors.

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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).

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