I’ve been involved with book groups since 1999. Some of them have been connected to bookstores or libraries, while others have been individuals meeting in one another’s homes. I’ve started a few from the ground up and taken over others when the previous leader decided the responsibility was too much. Being a discussion leader takes up a big chunk of time, and you have to be willing to sacrifice at least a few hours each week. If the leader isn’t willing to learn more about a book than what’s printed on its pages, a club most likely will not last longer than a few gatherings.
As a discussion leader, I have to learn more about a subject than everyone else. Let’s take a Jane Austen novel for example. Most people know about Jane’s life, but what about her views on religion, the navy, and the destiny of a woman in Austen’s world? This extra knowledge would help readers understand her characters’ snarky comments. It isn’t the character talking, but Jane talking through them and expressing her feelings. Or take The Weird Sisters (2010), by Eleanor Brown. The sisters are named after Shakespearean characters because that’s the world their professor father lives in, and a quick refresher on the relevant plays will help readers navigate the story. The quirks, talents, and motivations of the three sisters are more fully understood once the reader has some background.
Honestly, I often skid into discussion
with the ink still wet in my notebook.
This isn’t an easy undertaking. Time management comes into play and, honestly, I often skid into discussion with the ink still wet in my notebook. (I have sometimes asked questions about characters who aren’t even in the book! It’s embarrassing, but I do love the looks on my group’s faces when that happens.) But I do have a few tricks that have helped me out. These have been revised time and time again.
- First, I count the number of days between meetings and divide them into the pages of the selection, giving me a manageable reading schedule.
- Then I search for supplemental items that are easily scanned to provide additional information for the group. If I find pictures that might stimulate a reader’s curiosity, I will put together a small PowerPoint presentation. (This was a good choice for Homer and Langley (2009) by E. L. Doctorow, for example.)
- I’m not above handing out quizzes if the book is full of characters and plot twists. One of my groups isn’t particularly science-fiction savvy, so our discussion of Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, featured a quiz. I can often find these (or enough information to create one) while looking through different book discussion websites. Eye-rolling sometimes ensues, but this does help solidify the plot in readers’ minds.
- I network like crazy with other book-group leaders, asking them how their discussions went, what worked and what didn’t, and whether they did anything unusual. One excellent example is from Defending Jacob (2012) by William Landay. One leaders I talked to had set up a mock courtroom and had people sit on one side or the other depending on their opinions of Jacob. What a way to get things started—especially since not a lot of discussion material was available at that time.
- There are so many websites these days designed to facilitate discussions: type in the title of a book using any search engine and boom! a ton of sites appear. Some are more scholarly than others, of course, and then there are the college freshmen English class discussion guides that pop up. These rock! They offer author background, partial reviews, and 10–12 discussion questions. I don’t feel tied to those questions, but they’re a great way to get the ball rolling. Once people start talking, I rarely refer to the list again.
- I often use the author’s own story to get my thoughts going. Is there something in their background I can use as a starting point? One of my most recent discussions dealt with Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne felt extreme guilt over the fact his ancestors took part in the Salem Witch Trials and those feelings permeated not only Letter but House of Seven Gables, to the point this guilt was almost a character in the novel. Knowing this helped my group members understand some characters’ motivations. Understanding why a character did or said something is often a large part of any discussion.
A few tricks here and there will both save you time and help members understand what the author is trying to get across. And a good discussion is the end result!