My last post gave hints on how to prepare for a thematic book group and get the meeting started. Let’s continue by examining how discussion at the meeting plays out and why this format is advantageous for many groups.
After the introduction to the theme described in the previous post, it’s time for your readers to take center stage. Proceed around the table and ask each of them to give a brief book talk about what he or she read. These book talks are the core skill of the thematic book group. If they’re incomprehensible or full of spoilers, the group will be unhappy. If they’re well executed, the group will have a wonderful time and everyone will go home with more authors to try. So develop a brief set of instructions about how to give a book talk and distribute it at your first meeting. Have it available for new members thereafter, and occasionally redistribute it to the whole group if the quality of book talks is starting to decrease.
As the facilitator, your main job will be to ensure that time is distributed fairly and that everyone gets a turn. Divide the number of participants into the time available and let readers know approximately how much time they can take at the start of the meeting. Allow digressions–they’re one of the charms of this format–but be firm when necessary about moving discussion on to the next presenter with a gentle reminder that everyone deserves their turn. Some presenters will not say enough about their books, and you’ll need to draw out what you can with a few gentle questions. Often, multiple readers will select the same book. Group their discussion together. Leave time at the end to distribute the list for the next meeting and allow readers to recommend titles that others might enjoy for the new theme.
What are the advantages of this format? The tone of the meeting is less academic, more democratic. Many book groups prefer the more social, less confrontational kind of discussion that the format creates. The thematic format allows readers (and group leaders) more freedom in controlling their reading schedules, and if the lists of suggested books that you prepare for the meeting are generous, readers will often find books they intended to read anyway that they can now read for book group. In my experience, the thematic book group allows readers who don’t have common tastes to co-exist happily, while in a common-book format, they’re often forced to compete for whose preferred books will get the most discussion. The format also alleviates all of those complaints about the selections being too depressing, or too complicated, or too similar. Since your readers are picking their own titles within the theme, they have no one to blame but themselves when the selections fail to please.
While you won’t get the depth of discussion created by a common-book discussion, you’ll learn about a broad range of titles and reveal the personal tastes of each reader more clearly. The thematic format works for a larger number of readers in the same time frame, and encourages members to attend even in months when they don’t finish a book. There’s less risk that a meeting will fail because of a bad book choice or because of an awkward disagreement about a particular title. If you’ve got a difficult participant who tends to monopolize the conversation, this format also makes it easier to limit his or her input: Just politely but firmly move on to the next reader’s book talk. The thematic format also alleviates the ongoing nuisance of finding enough copies of a single book in a small community. Finally, this format works better for a lot of great books that are plot- or subject-driven, all of those titles that don’t leave participants with enough to say when they’re studied for an hour or more.
Because the quality of book talks is so crucial to the success of a meeting, I’ll be back next week with a basic set of do’s and don’ts for preparing a thematic group book talk.