I have been given a label over my sixteen years as a book-group discussion leader: old-fashioned. I have also been told that my group will never succeed if I continue to lead in that manner. I have been told my group will become bored and membership will dwindle—that I will be out of a job faster than a sneeze. Well, I am still here and I am still succeeding. Let me explain why I think people call me old-fashioned.
I usually start my book-group meetings with a small list of need-to-know info about the book or author, then proceed to the author’s biography, and finally to the book itself. Sounds plain and boring? Wrong. It works! I started out with this format and have only varied a little over the years. This is what my groups have liked, requested, AND what they come to expect from me. So why does it seem to bother everyone else?
Honestly, I used that long before Las Vegas did—
I think they owe me royalties.
I have found that people like structure and prefer a discussion that has a solid foundation. If I turn things around and ask my group members to try leading, people’s mouths clamp shut. Most of my members want a subject to be introduced, explained a bit, and only then put to the rest of the group. Remember my last post, when I discussed the online readers’ guides? It’s a resource I use as well. I find an easy opening question online, do some background exploring on the book and possibly author’s background, and rephrase the question to make it unique to the book. This way, members are more likely to respond than if I were to read something that sounded generic. I believe in the importance of making the listener comfortable in a group setting. I have a firm rule for group members: “what is said in book group, stays in book group.” Honestly, I used that long before Las Vegas did—I think they owe me royalties. If people are comfortable, then ideas and conversations flow better.
I have attended many seminars about book clubs, especially ones on leadership, but I have never been fully comfortable with being in charge. I am always interested in what other people do. I am skeptical however, of some experimental group book methods, like where each member reads a different book. Each person has five minutes to talk about their book and then the group moves to the next person. Well, what happens to the discussion aspect? What about trying to talk through the most difficult plot point? What about author background that would help understand why the characters did what they did? Without answering these questions, you, as a book group member, have just heard a “book talk,” no “discussion” included. How is that a book group? There are times when my group cannot decide on a book to read for a certain month, so two are assigned. In my experience, those are generally the worst discussions. People read the book of their choice (while I read both and strive to provided two separate and equal discussions for each). People who read one book are bored and restless while the book they didn’t read is being discussed. It is rare that a compare-and-contrast session like this can be done, and in my experience, members end up disliking it more than I do.
I guess it boils down to a personal opinion: what constitutes a discussion of a book? My definition is this: one book is read by all and then discussed by all. Other books may be pulled into the exchange, but overall there is one book. To discuss means to have a dialogue or a conversation. Yes, you can have a conversation about more than one book, but the tenor of the meeting changes to that of talk, not discussion. Keep in mind, this is my own definition—others may be different. I like being called old-fashioned, but I bristle to hear it used in a demeaning manner. My book discussions have structure, but still flow naturally around the comments made by members. I am old-fashioned and darn proud of it.