One book or many? It’s a question I debate with my colleague Andrew Smith, who leads one-book discussion groups at Williamsburg Library. I prefer themed book groups that bring multiple books to the table for each meeting. Ultimately, either solution can be effective. Sue Dittmar, a wonderful librarian from St. Charles City-County Library District in Missouri, made a plea for old-fashioned groups where one book is at the center of discussion in a recent post here on the Booklist Reader. I respect her opinions and would never suggest that any successful book group should change formats just for the sake of change. Many book groups have found great success with the traditional model. But there are advantages to a multiple book “themed” format, and I couldn’t let the post go without a response.
The one-book approach to book groups borrows its approach from a very familiar model, discussion in high-school English classes or collegiate literary seminars. An expert highlights major aspects of the book, poses questions, and invites comments from others who have recently been introduced to the book. In the hands of a skilled leader or facilitator, it can lead to a great discussion, and there is a power to the social glue provided by the shared experience of reading the same book. The “themed” or multiple-book format, on the other hand, is less frequently explored, but would benefit a lot of failing or unhappy book groups.
A multiple-book model uses a library better,
encouraging readers to explore the collection
and use what’s available on any given day.
Exploring one book in depth is one way to have a discussion, but to borrow from Sue, it depends on what one means by “discussion.” There are persistent problems with the one-book model as well, and talking with library patrons or colleague group leaders at library conferences, I’ve heard of many groups that either never found enough readers to get off the ground or fell apart due to internal conflicts. I’ve seen other groups that failed or limped on unhappily because a pedantic “leader” liked to hear his or her own voice too much while quieter members rarely spoke. There are four aspects of the one-book format that I dislike and which a multiple-book format can help resolve.
First, the one-book format assumes common ground between readers in the group—that they’ll always enjoy the same books. But if they don’t have that common ground, or only find it on every third or fourth book, the result is low attendance, bickering about whether the chosen titles are too dark or too light, always from the same “literary novel” model, or too far out of the mainstream. If your group has reached happy agreement about which titles to select, bully for you! Continue forward! But if it struggles to maintain enough readers, has strange dips in attendance when certain books are selected, or is constantly in conflict about title selection, a broader format merits exploration. As an example, I submit my science fiction/fantasy group. Composed of readers who would never continue if we required them all to read any particular kind of book, using monthly themes instead, we have coexisted happily for over 10 years now with high attendance. My readers come to book group eagerly, even in months when they haven’t finished a book, just to hear about new titles and throw in their opinions about those they have read in the past.
Second, there’s the persistent problem of coming up with enough copies of a single book. It’s a pain! As a librarian, I regularly see groups with hard-to-find, or conversely, over-popular selections that are almost impossible to attain in numbers. I’ve seen a thousand short-term hold lists that spring up when a local book group selects a title, lists that I dutifully place requests on, all the while knowing that the books probably won’t arrive on time for half the readers. My library has a good solution in “gab bag” sets of books that groups can check out for a longer circulating period, but even with a good budget devoted to them, the options always have limits, and scheduling, pickup, and return of the bags is challenging. A multiple-book model uses a library better, encouraging readers to explore the collection and use what’s available on any given day.
Third is the problem of conversational balance. A skilled leader like Sue who stimulates discussion, draws out quieter participants, and controls those who would dominate conversation can overcome this problem, but the challenge of spreading participation never goes away. I’ve seen too many groups with preachy leaders, domineering members, and soft-spoken newbies who quit after a few months of never getting a word in edgewise. A multiple-book format requires each participant to develop the skill of giving a short booktalk about his or her chosen title. It’s a skill that can be taught relatively easily, and the movement around the table gives everyone a chance to say something while restraining difficult members from overwhelming everyone else. For our staff book group, the format is good professional development, helping many of our staff members learn the core skill of giving a booktalk.
I’ve seen people storm out of rooms, come
close to blows, or more commonly, just quit,
never to be seen again.
Fourth, there’s the problem of conflict. When all the attention is placed on one book, what happens when the majority of readers don’t like the book? Or when there’s a big difference of opinion? Some groups learn to handle this conflict and debate gracefully, turning it into an asset rather than a detriment, but as many or more don’t. Hurt feelings and resentments that arise when others are dismissive of a book that one suggested and loved can fester, ultimately creating enemies or cliques within the group. I’ve seen people storm out of rooms, come close to blows, or more commonly, just quit, never to be seen again. Yes, the discussion in a themed or multiple book group may not find the same depth, but it replaces that with a breadth that is more inclusive and less divisive. Readers in my themed groups always go home with more authors and books that they want to read. They co-exist happily with readers who are very different than themselves. The discussion is far-ranging and constantly surprising.
Any format takes some practice, and a group that is accustomed to discussing one title may take some time to find the advantages of the multiple book format, but if you participate in a group that suffers from some of the common one-book problems that I described above, I hope you’ll consider other formats. You might find a solution that leaves your members more engaged and less conflicted while using your library’s resources more gracefully.