by Jenny Strickland
If you want to start a Book Group, your first job is to find others who are keen. I’d say that you need to start with at least 3 or 4 friends who can each invite others to join. The Library Notice Board is a good place to advertise.
You also need to decide whether what you are wanting is a Social Book Club, whose main purpose at each meeting is tea and chat, as well as the means to read the latest books before they are available at the Library, or something more challenging.
This would be a Book Discussion or Book Study Group. This is a group where tea may be served but talking about books is the priority. (Apparently this is what other countries know as a Book Club.) Each meeting centres round discussion of a particular book, chosen beforehand and which, one hopes, all the members have already read.
We have had a Book Discussion group running for about 9 years now. We first tried having an ‘expert’ (a teacher of literature) to lead it. However, we found that this limited discussion. Members were afraid of exposing ignorance. Now we take it in turn to lead discussion. Each October and November, we discuss suggested books and decide on 10 books to study in the coming year. (We don’t meet in December because of holiday busyness, nor in January because of Summer School.)
A leader is necessary to organise and make final decisions. We try to choose a varied list of books. We include at least one South African book. This year we have both Jonny Steinberg’s Three-letter Plague and Anne Landsman’s The Rowing Lesson. We also include at least one non-fiction. We try to mix male and female authors, though our members happen to be all women. Experience has shown that it is better not to include ‘tomes’ of more than 400 or 500 pages. It’s too difficult for all the members to read them in time. Nevertheless, we did study and enjoy Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. Librarians are in a prime position to make suggestions. We, in Fish Hoek, are fortunate to have Professor Kossick. Her book lists, and the talks she gives in aid of Library funds, are an invaluable resource for choosing books worth discussing. Occasionally, we choose another book by an author we have discussed before and it’s always interesting to compare them. For instance, we read Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus in 2006, then her Half of a Yellow Sun, to do with the Biafran war, in 2008.
Ideally, every member should have their own copy of each book but, for us, economics prevents this. We check that our Fish Hoek Library has a copy and, usually, at least one member has another. In addition, we buy (discounted or second-hand whenever possible) a group copy, using the R10 a month we each put in. We pass these copies around in the month or two before discussion. For this, it helps if most members are local. We donate our books to the Library when we’ve finished with them.
For the discussion, we suggest that the leader tells us something about the author. For The Rowing Lesson this was very interesting as it showed that the book is strongly autobiographical. Also, the fact that Anne Landsman is a poet and trained as a script writer has a direct bearing on her style of writing – allusive and with vividly depicted scenes. The leader also gives a brief summary of the book, to help anyone who has not been able to read it (and to remind those of us who have).
To facilitate discussion, we suggest that each discussion leader has 3 or 4 open-ended questions ready. These are some we have used:
Does the book work? If so, why/why not?
Were the characters rendered fully?
Were they real?
Did the author create an atmosphere you could visualise?
Was there a narrator? If so, was the use of the narrator effective?
Was there a point? If so, what?
Did the book inspire you?
What was your favourite passage/quote?
(from Vintage Reading Group Guides)
Each of these questions can be enlarged on. For instance:
Who are the key characters?
Do one or more of the characters tell the story?
If so, how do their own circumstances colour the story?
Are they trustworthy?
Are their voices genuine/believable?
Do you empathise with or recognise them? Try to keep questions open-ended. If you ask a question that has a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer, always follow it with “Why?”
Members who have access to the Internet can generally find several different reviews of each book, as well as information about the author and their other work. Quite often, there are online Reading Group Discussion questions which can be adapted for the group. In addition, some books have their own discussion questions and/or author interview at the end of the book. For example, V V Ganeshananthan’s Love Marriage (which is on the Orange Prize long list). People often ask me which Book sites I find most helpful. There are sites such as Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Alibris, Bookspot.com, Bookpage.com, etc. However, I usually just enter the book title and author and Google it. It’s useful to have a couple of reviews which criticise the book (or a member who really didn’t like it). It does make discussion more interesting!
This last month, we had chosen to discuss The Boy in Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. Mrs P, who was due to lead discussion, thought it was a ridiculous choice, a children’s book and not a very good one. Of course, this led to heated discussion about the simple writing style of the book. Did it work? Was it convincing? Should young people read it? Was it an effective way of writing about the Holocaust? Did it challenge us?
Next month’s choice is The Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier – a wonderful contrast as the writing style tends to the turgid and convoluted. It was a best-seller in Europe. The book has been translated into English, but does it appeal to English-speaking readers? Has it been translated well? How can we tell?
A leader is also needed to ensure that someone is ready to lead discussion (and someone else to do tea) each month and, probably most important, to control cross-chatter and encourage quiet members to participate. At least one person in the group needs to be reading reviews as well as reading widely so that the books chosen are reasonably well- written and interesting. It’s good if one or two books are quite challenging but also good to have at least one that most people will enjoy. This year, I’m expecting Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to be that book.
An advantage of the members taking turns to lead discussion is the fact that methods of leading are as individual as the members. On one occasion, Mrs D handed us each a slip of paper with a character’s name and a page reference and asked us to read the passage and comment on that character. Some members do a lot of written preparation. Others walk in without any apparent preparation but ask questions that have us discussing/arguing furiously within minutes. It’s important that members should be allowed to express their views about the book honestly without anyone taking it personally. It also sometimes happens that a book stirs up painful personal feelings or memories e.g. Tony Eprile’s The Persistence of Memory – some of our sons or husbands were in Angola – and this needs to be handled gently and carefully.
Is it worthwhile to organise a Book Discussion Group? Personally, a definite Yes! I think the fact that our membership has remained at 9 – 16, despite a lot of coming and going, shows that readers are interested. I have found it challenges lazy reading habits. We don’t discuss ‘romances’ or ‘detectives’ (though we enjoyed P D James’s memoir A Time to be in Earnest!) and our list is varied, so belonging to a Book Discussion group pushes one out of a reading rut. Also, I find that I read differently when I know that I will need to make some reasonably intelligent comments at our meeting. I seldom re-read books, but often read our Book Discussion choice a second time and generally find much more of interest then. I’d go so far as to say that if a book doesn’t bear re-reading, it’s probably not worth discussing. As facilitator of our group, I find I also look at nearly everything I read as a possible Book Club Choice, which means that I more deliberately watch for good writing, interesting topics, original thought than I would otherwise. And it’s fun! We always enjoy our discussions and we’ve met really interesting people through the group. Try it!
Victoria G Mains: The Reader’s Choice
Mickey Pearlman: What to Read
Shireen Dodson: The Mother-Daughter Book Club
And, for fun
Karen Joy Fowler: The Jane Austen Book Club
Pierre Bayard: How to talk about a Book You Haven’t Read