The Basics of Thematic Book Groups, Pt. 1

In my last post, I made the case that for many book groups, better formats are available than the everyone-reads-the-same-literary-novel format that is so common. The most useful of these is the thematic book group, in which each meeting is based around a theme, and each reader talks briefly about the book she or he chose to read from within the meeting’s larger theme. Here’s how to prepare for such a group:

Put together a schedule of themes. This is true whether the group reads everything or focuses on a particular genre (this format works especially well for mystery, fantasy, science fiction, romance, or nonfiction groups–any genre or subject that reads books that don’t always Around the Tablework well in a  common book format.) The groups I work select a calendar of themes each year from a ballot of potential topics, but you don’t have to be that formal. At minimum, the theme should be announced at the meeting before the theme discussion. Themes might include the works of a particular author, a genre or subgenre, common plot devices, kinds of characters or relationships, historical settings, geographic settings, the work of a related set of authors (such as the Beats, or authors from a particular city or country), books made into films, or the books of a year or decade. Look for themes that are big enough to allow different kinds of readers to pick different kinds of books, but still cohesive enough to create a common ground for the discussion. Be creative and mix it up.

As a group facilitator, you’ll get better results if you create a list of books that fit within the upcoming theme. My lists range from a short bibliography if the theme is a single author to a sheet of paper filled front and back for broader themes. Distribute the list the month before the meeting (at the end of the meeting so participants don’t get distracted by it). Bring more copies of the list to the meeting itself. The list will help readers identify appropriate titles, but also has the wonderful secondary benefit of giving new members or readers who come to the meeting without finishing a book something to talk about. They can identify books or authors that they’ve read in the past on the list and talk about those.

At the meeting, you can jump right into reader book talks or start the discussion with a short presentation about that month’s theme. If you use some kind of opening talk, consider spreading the work between different presenters each meeting. They might talk about early works that explored the theme, what led to the theme’s popularity, about common elements in the literature represented by the theme, or about the biography of the authors in question. Keep presentations brief, you don’t want to steal the thunder of the readers who are waiting for their turn to talk.

I’ll share more next week about the potential benefits of using this format and how to facilitate the thematic discussion as it moves around the table.

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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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