Last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review featured an interview with Sue Grafton, one of my favorite authors and a genuinely charming person. I love reading interviews with her because of her frankness and humor. She tells it like it is without being nasty or snarky. An interview about her own reading habits was a highlight of my Sunday reading.
Her response to one question triggered a little pondering of my own experiences. When asked if she belonged to a book club, Grafton was characteristically blunt, saying she can’t stand the idea and doesn’t want anyone else dictating her reading. I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment; before I owned my shop, I attempted to join a few such groups, and dropped out quickly. I hate the idea of “having to” read anything. Yet now there are two book clubs at my shop, and I participate in both. Currently both are on “summer break” and I am reveling in choosing my books without the looming deadline of a meeting.
Why do I do what I don’t like? Initially, it was a simple marketing idea, and it works well. Customers like the idea of a bookshop that sponsors reading groups, even if they don’t participate. Those who have joined (and stayed) have become regular shoppers here, and for more than the chosen book club offerings. It’s not necessary that I participate, but I have found that the benefits to myself, not the shop, outweigh the discomfort of forcing myself to read something my own whim hasn’t taken me to, and in an imposed time frame. I can feel virtuous about reading Catherine the Great, which would have remained in my “to be read” pile until death did us part. And I enjoyed it. Being pushed outside my default mode of reading of crime fiction has led to some truly enjoyable experiences. The books are not “imposed,” since the groups decide by consensus what to read. If someone objects strongly, we choose something else.
The main benefit, though, is the discussion. Both groups (and there is a heavy overlap of membership) enjoy talking about books: themes, settings, characters, plots. And each person seems to come up with observations that no one else had made. It’s almost like reading the book twice, with new insights the second time. The opportunity to discuss books with other avid, discerning readers is worth all the angst associated with the necessity of finishing a book on a schedule.
Which leads me to Grafton’s elaboration on her answer, posing her own question: “…what the heck is the point of those study guides at the end of so many novels? Are publishers assuming we’re so dimwitted that we can’t arrive at our literary judgments without the benefit of a list of muddle-headed grade-school questions?”
Alas, like so much in this world, the answer is again - marketing. Book clubs are big business. I have become familiar with several in our area simply because the members shop here. If someone I know is in a book club requests a certain title, I ask if it is for the group. If so, I know it’s best to order multiple copies, because other group members will appear shortly. Some clubs prepare their reading lists months in advance, and share the lists with me so that I am ready when they are. Others, like ours, plan a few months ahead and often rearrange the order based on circumstances (e.g., our mystery group tries to read Anthony nominees in late spring and early fall, since most of the members plan to attend Bouchercon).
In some book clubs, the members are each asked to suggest two or three titles at a special planning meeting, and explain why they think those books are good choices. Frequently, someone is in my shop browsing, trying to come up with ideas for her group. And never once have I seen a choice made because the words “Reader’s Guide inside!” are printed on the cover. The customer will pick the brain of the knowledgeable (but humble) bookseller; she will randomly pick up the books on display; and, most often, she will focus on books “a friend said was really good.” Yes, folks, word-of-mouth is still a compelling force in the book world. The searcher will read the jacket copy, the first few paragraphs, and perhaps scan through the rest of the book. The “Reader’s Guide” gets no attention in the process.
Why then are these “guides” being added, usually to the trade paperback edition of a book that did well in hardcover? I can only assume that publishers want to position these books as suitable for book clubs to increase sales of the paperback edition. Most book clubs do not read novels until they are in paperback; the library has limited copies and the groups try to be considerate of the members’ wallets. Every book club I am aware of will be buying All the Light You Cannot See the month it is released in paperback, and it won’t matter if someone takes the time to add a “Reader’s Guide.” Word-of-mouth has done the job.
It may be that the “Reader’s Guide Inside” label helps sell books elsewhere; I am speaking only from my own experience. Are these guides really as bad as Grafton says? Actually, the quality varies. I have seen some that do seem to be exam questions for 8th-graders. Others seem to focus on drawing parallels between the novel and the reader’s own experiences. Few focus on settings, or characters, or themes, although the better ones do. I have tried reading the guide before the book when I am having a hard time motivating myself to begin. They frequently contain spoilers, so beware. Our own book groups rarely reference the guide, if there is one. We have too much to say on our own, and this seems to be true of most book clubs in this area.
Recently, publishers have been including author “interviews” in addition to the list of questions about the book. These are much more interesting and useful. I randomly picked up from my shelves the recently released trade paperback edition of We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. (This was truly random, and I am not picking on one particular book or publisher.) Reader’ Guide question: “Connell attends one of Ed’s classes in order to complete a school assignment. Describe Connell’s experience in the classroom….” Conversation with Matthew Thomas question: “It’s apparent that Ed loves teaching and that, until his illness manifests itself, he’s widely respected by both his students and colleagues. How did your own experience in the classroom inform Ed’s character?” I know which question would generate more interest and discussion in our book club; we don’t spend time rehashing what we have all read, but insights into the author’s thinking and influences, and whether they came through in the text are welcome subjects.
Do you use reader’s guides, either for your own reading enhancement or in a group? In choosing a book? I’d like to hear some other opinions on this subject, since my experience is limited to my own groups and those of my customers.