Book Discussion 101

BY CHRISTY HISSONG

Ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading!
– Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

Before Oprah, even before Mortimer Adler, there were books and people who read and discussed them together. There are neighborhood book clubs, literary societies, library discussion groups and study groups — all formed for different reasons and with varied goals, and there are as many ways to lead book discussions as there are venues, groups and leaders themselves! Yet there are general ground rules and tips that apply to all of the above, so if you’re interested in starting, joining, nurturing or leading a group of people who read and discuss books together, read on!

Setting Ground Rules:

  • Who will lead? Book groups are vastly more enjoyable when only one person is directing the flow of ideas that occur in a discussion. One person could lead every meeting, or you could rotate. In some groups, members take turns choosing the book and leading the discussion of the book they choose.
  • How large/small will the group be? In my experience, groups that exceed 15 people are often too big, with 8-12 being ideal. The larger the group, the more the leader needs to monitor the discussion to be sure everyone who wants to can participate, and to head off potential conflict.
  • Where are you going to meet? Some groups meet at a set location, some rotate homes, and some meet at a library, church, coffee shop, etc.
  • How often will you meet? Many groups meet once a month on an agreed-upon schedule, or choose the date and time at the previous meeting.
  • How long will your meetings run? Plan on 1 to 1.5 hours, but that will be longer if food is involved {the higher the tea, the longer, yes?}
  • What will you read? Often groups are very decided in their choices: Science fiction, biographies, non-fiction, classics. But consider this: Trying something new is part of the adventure, so don’t limit the list to books by the same author or books with themes that are too similar.
  • Cost and availability are big factors in choosing books. Will your group choose to read only paperbacks? Only shorter books? Only library books? Will the leader order books for the whole group or is everyone responsible for finding his own copy? Books should be chosen in advance so titles can be procured long before the discussion. Planning ahead is immensely helpful because it keeps the group cohesive and productive. Your librarian can help you locate multiple copies of books through interlibrary loan.
  • How will books be chosen? They need to be more than a good story to generate discussion. The writing, characters and subject matter must be able to sustain at least an hour’s worth of comments. Controversial books are terrific fodder for discussion, but the leader must keep the discussion impersonal and keep the group away from emotional exchanges. {A plug for my beloved classics here: It’s much easier to discuss controversial ideas when the people involved are far removed from our own time and place.} Groups have many methods of book selection. In some, the leader will propose several books and members vote for their favorites. In other groups, each member chooses one book for the group to read, and then leads the group through that book they have chosen. {This also cuts down on leader burn-out.}

 

Participant Prep:

Read the book actively, making margin notes and/or generating questions. Pause at the end of each chapter. What prompts a strong response in you? Have you made any connections to previous reading or ideas? Briefly narrate what you’ve read either to yourself, in writing, or to someone else.

After your reading, you might be interested in knowing more about the author, and what literary critics or other readers have to say. Maybe the reading sparked a new idea or interest in your mind — now is the time to investigate and ruminate so you can bring something to the table when your group meets to discuss.

Leading a Great Discussion:

If you’re facilitating the discussion, prepare a list of 20 questions in advance. You may not need them, but nothing is worse than dead air. Keep the questions open-ended {how and why} — nothing shuts down discussion quicker than starting with, “So, did you like the book?”{Insert crickets chirping.} Book reviews, author biographies and some literary criticism may be useful when prepping a discussion.

Sometimes it’s useful to begin a discussion by asking for volunteers to narrate the story from the beginning, changing narrators every few minutes. Invariably someone will disagree with another person’s “take” and your discussion will be off and running! Here are some suggestions for other discussion-prompts:

  • How did the author draw the characters – with a full description or did a picture gradually emerge from details? Did the characters seem real and why? Did you identify with them and if so, how so? How did the author make you care about the characters and outcome? If not, why not?
  • Why do you think the author set the book in that particular location? Did you learn anything new from being there?
  • What drew you into the book and made you keep reading?
  • What did you think of the author’s use of language? How did it affect your reading or enjoyment of the book? Are there any passages of special beauty or effectiveness that you’d like to highlight?
  • Was the author making a particular point in the story? How was your thinking affected?
  • If this was a book that will stay with you a while, why?

It’s often useful to ask participants to consider whether their response to the book or characters are intellectually motivated {above the neck} or emotionally motivated {below-the-neck}. If discussion is getting heated, encourage participants to, “Check your necks!”

Leader Tips:

There is no definite right or wrong in the art of literary interpretation, but encourage your group to form opinions based on details from the text.

Listen attentively so you can ask appropriate follow-up questions. Linking your questions to previous answers results in better conversation. It may mean skipping around in your questioning. Remember to be confident and unafraid to take charge.

Disagreement is good! Ask WHY they didn’t like the protagonist or WHAT bothered them about the book. Ask how they would have changed the storyline or author’s handling of it. If necessary, play devil’s advocate and ask a question that you know will get them going {even if you already know the answer}.

As you’re winding down, be sure to allow time for open discussion, and ask for questions from others. “What else has everyone been reading?” is a nice segue to social time.

Keep a list of what your group reads and ask participants to rate each book.

Keeping it Moving and Troubleshooting:

Ask each person to come to the meeting with three questions and/or three specific passages to discuss.

Begin each talk with a gentle reminder about how to behave: “Before we begin, let’s remember to be respectful of one another. Please don’t interrupt and when you have the floor keep your remarks brief and to the point so everyone has a chance to contribute.”

Take charge. Some people don’t “get” groups — they talk too much, they insult others, or they sit like stones. If your group has someone who monopolizes the discussion, or insists that his interpretation is the only one possible, or never reads the book but expects everyone to listen to their lengthy opinion of it, you have to confront the problem or your group will die a slow death. Obviously, this is best done privately.

When you identify a problem {typically these offenders announce themselves early and often}, suggest that the group spend a few minutes discussing rules of behavior: Be kind, listen, take turns, share. Give it a meeting or two to see if it takes.

If someone is monopolizing, say, “You made an excellent point on ______ — what does everyone else think?” If discussion goes off on a tangent, break in and ask a question like, “What was in the book that made you think of this?”

No personal attacks allowed — it’s fine to disagree but not to belittle other group members or their views. If your group has been meeting a while and you’re bored, here are some ideas for breathing new life into your group:

  • You may need new blood. Invite new people to join the group. The first time someone new shows up, everyone will be at his or her scintillating best – it’s human nature!
  • Ask everyone to rate the book BEFORE the discussion starts, and then again AFTER you’ve talked about it for an hour or so. Did minds change? Why?
  • Change your format or venue.
  • Suggest members read one or both of two books that are somehow related. For instance, Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Day They Came to Arrest the Book. This sets up automatic comparisons and contrasts between the works and leads to a bountiful exchange of ideas.
  • Choose an author with a large body of work and have everyone read a different offering. Talk about earlier versus later work with regard to character development, plot and themes.

The bottom line? You can do this. Start a reading group or join a book club. Your reading life will increase exponentially as you consider ideas with others. In the immortal words of Edmund Wilson, “No two persons ever read the same book.” Exactly.

Christy Hissong was trained by the Great Books Foundation and is a certified discussion facilitator. She leads book discussions for libraries, businesses and private groups. Christy is the wife of a well-read man and the mama of one barefoot boy. She reads, sings, hikes, cooks and joins the Great Conversation from her Tennessee mountaintop home.

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