In any group where participants have not read the same title, particularly in thematic book groups, the paramount skill for a successful meeting is the ability of readers to describe what they read in an intriguing way. While most readers pick up this skill through the model of others over time, early efforts can be awkward and spoil books more often than they convince appropriate readers to give them a try. A better, more direct approach is to actively teach readers how to give a book talk. To that end, here is a sample list of do’s and don’ts. If you’re starting a new book group, pass guidelines like these out and discuss them at an early meeting, then review the recommendations once a year. Have copies available to give to new members at each meeting.
Your first goal in talking about your book should be to make readers who would enjoy it know why and consider picking it up. Your second goal should be to warn readers who wouldn’t like the book why they should stay away.
- DO be time conscious. We want to hear about your book, but many will tune out if you take more than a fair share of discussion time.
- DO speak up. DON’T talk too fast. If you tend to get flustered or ramble, compose a bulleted list of points that you want to make in advance. If this is really hard for you, practice the talk once before the meeting.
- DO bring the book to the meeting. If it has interesting illustrations or unusual content, consider passing it around the group. If you don’t have the book for some reason, bring a picture of the cover with you to the meeting and tell people how many pages long it is.
- DO state the title of the book and the author’s name clearly and slowly as you begin to talk. If the book is part of a series, say where it falls in the sequence and whether you think the series needs to be read in order. When was it published?
- DON’T try to recap the entire plot of the book. It’s dull and may spoil the book for those who haven’t read it. DON’T give away the ending, big plot twists, or major occurrences that happen after the first hundred pages or so.
- DO provide just enough information about the plot to tease other readers. What is the basic conflict? What is the situation as the novel begins? What are the central problems faced by the main characters? Did the plot seem plausible? Was it unusual in some way?
- DON’T spend all of your time telling the group that this was a horrible book that nobody should ever read. We want to hear your opinion, but remember that different readers have different tastes. If you didn’t enjoy the book, explain why this wasn’t the right book for you, then try to put yourselves in the place of readers who might like it. Who might the appropriate audience be?
- DO talk about characters and relationships. What were the characteristics of the key players? Were they believable? Likeable? Could you relate to their conflicts? What kind of readers would relate to these characters? Were the characters different or exceptional in some way from other characters you have read? Were there lots of characters to meet, or was most of the story confined to a small group of players?
- DO talk about settings. Does the book have details about any particular place? Historical period? Occupation, hobby, or other interest area? Did the author create a vivid sense of place, or could the story have occurred anywhere?
- DO talk about genre. Is this book typical of a particular genre or subgenre? Is it different in some way than other books in that category?
- DO talk about atmosphere, mood, and tone. What words would you use to describe the ways the book made you feel? Was it suspenseful? Did it have humor?
- DO warn other readers if the book has elements that they might prefer to avoid. Extensive rough language, sexuality, violence, death, or illness are examples, as are particular political points of view. Even if these elements don’t bother you, other readers may appreciate the warning. Other potential peeves include nonlinear plots, unlikeable lead characters, highly unresolved endings, or a particularly depressing story.
- DO talk about pacing. Is the book a page turner? Does the author slowly build up details before a faster moving finish? Or is the book slow and meditative, meant to be read in a leisurely way? Did anything about the book make it difficult for you to get through it?
- DO make comparisons. Did the book remind you of others that might be more familiar to other readers? Is the book typical of work by the author? Might it appeal to readers who like a particular author?
- DO describe the perfect audience for the book. Would it appeal more to readers of a certain age? Gender? Ethnicity? People who are in certain kinds of relationships or have had certain life experiences? What does that perfect reader love in a great book and how does this book match that list of preferences?
As a book group leader or other discussant, you can also use this list to draw more information out of readers who aren’t sharing enough about their book. Glance down the list and ask a few follow up questions to get more information from the reader about aspects of the book that weren’t clear to you.
What other items would you add to the list of how to give a great book talk? Does anyone want to share any great techniques for working with readers who say too much or too little about the book?