Last week, Erin posted some thoughts about book groups and asked for feedback regarding what qualities a book needs to possess to make it a good choice for a book group. It's a topic I've spent a considerable amount of time thinking about over the years; my library's book group will celebrate its tenth anniversary this August. The group has met roughly every six weeks since August of 2002 and by the time our anniversary rolls around, its members will have shared 87 books with one another. We're planning a big anniversary party for August and hope to have another celebration in December of 2013 when we reach the 100 book milestone.
Before offering my opinion regarding what makes a book a good choice for a group discussion, it's probably a good idea to offer some background regarding the membership of our group and the rules that it operates by. We've had as few as three people show up (our first meeting) or as many as 27 although we generally average between 12 and 15 per meeting. Over time, membership in the group has shifted as people either lose interest, move away or pass away. Fortunately, there are always new people showing up, some of whom enjoy the experience and keep coming back. Demographically, our membership is mostly women over the age of 50 but there are also a couple of younger women and a handful of 50+ guys. Having both male and female points of view definitely makes the discussion more lively and unpredictable.
From the beginning, I made the decision that the group would not be a democracy, my philosophy being that if the members of the group expected me to lead the discussion, that it was only fair that I should be able to choose the book that was going to be discussed. The incentive for other members to take turns leading the group is that whoever leads the session can pick the book that will be discussed and this strategy has worked to a certain extent. Although a fair amount of pressure comes with the responsibility of selecting the books that the group reads, the fact that I am invested in a particular book means that I will do a better job of leading that discussion. I will sometimes choose a book that I have already read and am itching to share with the group, but most of the time I pick books that I haven't yet read but want to. So what do I look for?
1. If, at the conclusion of a novel, the main character's fate has not been clearly spelled out, it is inevitable that group will have multiple opinions regarding what the author intended as the character's fate. There's nothing like a good, spirited argument to keep the discussion flowing. Examples: Tulip Fever, by Deborah Moggach, Thieves of Manhattan, by Adam Langer
2. Stories with moral ambiguity at their center also have people taking sides and engaging in passionate discussion. Examples: Tell Me a Riddle, by Tillie Olsen; Atonement, by Ian McEwan; The Story of a Marriage, by Andrew Sean Greer
3. Books that are so beautifully written that everyone can't wait to share their favorite passages with the other members. Examples: The World According to Garp, by John Irving; Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson; Three Junes, by Julia Glass; Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell
4. Required reading from high school that was remembered fondly and that we are looking to revisit with an adult's perspective. Examples: The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
5. Classic titles that we read in high school but were too lacking in life experience to understand as teenagers. Examples: Heart of Darkness; The Good Earth; Mrs. Dalloway
6. Something thrown in from left field. For the session after we discussed Pride and Prejudice, I deliberately picked Love Story, by Erich Segal so that the group could discuss the qualities that make one book an enduring classic and the other just another piece of pop culture detrius.
7. Recommendations from people whose taste in books I trust. Examples: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo; Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks; The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien;The Human Stain, by Philip Roth; A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines.
8. Books that I love so much that I wanted and excuse to read them again so that I could discuss them with the group. Examples: Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer; The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth; Snow in August, by Pete Hamill, Little Children, by Tom Perrotta; The Clothes they Stood Up In, by Alan Bennett; Midwives, by Chris Bohjalian.
Next week: Book discussion pitfalls