Do Book Groups and Politics Mix?

Politics are book group dynamite.

Many groups studiously avoid all nonfiction, not just political works. Others will attempt it, but only in its narrative variety, most often choosing memoirs or other stories that “read like a novel.” Even if one negotiates this hurdle, controversial subject matter–subjects like religion and politics–are even more taboo. Personality conflicts  lead to more failed meetings than any other problem, and can rear their ugly heads often enough in groups without being invited. Choosing controversial topics can be a big mistake.

These aren’t bad guidelines. They’re worth following for new groups and those with a history of internal conflict. One group in which I was a member had met for years and considered itself relatively bulletproof until the night that a political book was selected and two long time members nearly came to fisticuffs when the argument got heated. That conflict never was entirely resolved, and the relationship between two former friends never healed.

All of that said, I’m not a believer that any book or subject matter must be completely forbidden to all groups. Some debate is healthy, and an overly bland group can fail just as drastically as a contentious group. At the end of the day, it’s about putting together an interesting meeting with a juicy discussion, just not a discussion that’s so extreme that people go away feeling bad. The first law for book group leadership is this: Know Your Group. Know it well enough, and you won’t need any other rules. Some groups can buck conventional wisdom and discuss almost anything. Others require the kid-glove treatment every time a selection is made.

If you do decide to tackle political books, select your first attempt carefully. Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World 2.0 is a good example of a book that will probably work. His primary premise is that the world has changed and that America is not so much underperforming as other countries have matched and in some aspects surpassed our pace. In particular, he looks at how the emergence of China and India, but also to some degree Russia, Brazil, Southa Africa, and other nations, has changed the rules of the game.

There are several reasons why this book could work in a group. First, Zakaria doesn’t frame the debate as a competition between liberals and conservatives, between Republicans and Democrats. He’s not likely to set off a battle along these traditional lines of conflict. He has good things and bad to say about leaders from both parties. Second, despite the changes in the world, he’s relatively optimistic about America’s future. Nothing’s as likely to raise hackles as an angry doomsday prophet, but Zakaria will send readers home thinking, not depressed. Finally, this book will work because it’s diverse. Zakaria blends statistics with anecdotes, theory with practice, economics with history and culture.

In honor of the Fourth of July, I’ll suggest a revised rule for book group discussion of politics: Go ahead, allow a few fireworks in your discussion, just set them off with care and don’t burn your book group down.

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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).

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