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Book Discussion Groups: Quick Start Guide

Resources for libraries--or others--seeking to establish a book discussion group.

Start

How to Start a Book Discussion Group: Answer 10 questions and you're on your way!

  1. What kind of book club? Decide on a club orientation: somewhere between highly social and seriously academic.
  2. What kind of books? Choose a literary genre or a mix of genres: fiction (current or classic), poetry, drama, mystery, sci-fi, current events, history, or biography.
  3. How many members? 8 to 16 members are best: enough for a discussion if several are absent, but not too many to make discussions unwieldy.
  4. How often should we meet? Once a month works best for most clubs. Some meet every 6 weeks. Pick a schedule and try to stick with it.
  5. When should we meet? Weekdays: mid-morning, lunchtime, dinner, evening—depends on jobs, childcare, family dinners or difficulty driving at night. Weekends: Saturday morning, or Sunday afternoon or evening.
  6. Where should we meet? Homes, clubhouses, public libraries, churches, local Y’s, restaurants—all make good meeting places.
  7. What should we call ourselves? Give your club an identity — Brookville Book Babes, Reading's Red Hat Readers, New London Literary Lions. Or simply the Lakewood Book Club — that works.
  8. How do we keep in touch? Send out monthly meeting reminders. If not everyone uses email, mail postcards. Distribute a complete list of phone numbers, home addresses, and e-mails.
  9. Keeping memories. Keep a club journal—a 3-ring binder to keep track of the books you’ve read, plot summaries, discussion highlights, and members’ opinions. It's especially useful to bring new members up to speed.
  10. Give back to the community. Collect dues for a scholarship or an annual literacy award at a local school. Purchase books for your local library, or become involved in a tutoring program

Meeting Do's and Don'ts

How to Structure a Meeting

Basic Ground Rules

  1. Members who haven’t read the book. Come anyway. Not everyone can finish every book, but non-readers may still have valuable insights.
  2. Disagreements about the book. Be gracious! There is no one way to experience or interpret a book. In fact, differing opinions are good.
  3. Members who prefer to socialize. Be gentle but firm. Insist that discussion time be limited to the book. Some clubs hold book discussions first and invite "social members" to join afterward.
  4. Dominating personalities. Never easy. “Let’s hear from some others” is one approach. Some clubs pass an object around the room; you talk only when you hold the object. If the person continues to dominate, a friendly phone call (no e-mail) might work. If all fails, well...sometimes they've just got to go—for the good of the club.

Meeting Format

  1. Allow 2 to 2-1/2 hours per meeting
    • 30-45 min. — social time
    • 15-20 min. — club administrative matters
    • 60-90 min. — book discussion
  2. Establish a format. Find what works for everyone and stick with it.

Holding the Discussion

  1. With a leader
    • Appoint a club member—whoever selected the book or the person who is hosting. Some clubs have one member who enjoys leading all discussions.
    • Invite an outside facilitator (English teacher or librarian), paid or unpaid.
  2. Without a leader
    • Take turns going around the room, allowing each member to talk about his or her experience reading the book.
    • Hand out index cards. Ask everyone to write a question or observation; then select one or more to discuss.

More for Facilitators

Finding Books

Some Do's & Don'ts

  1. Don't read favorites. Reading a book someone "just loves" can lead to hurt feelings—like inviting people into your living room to critique your decor. Ouch. Best to stay on neutral territory.
  2. Do mix genres. A steady diet of one thing can be dull, dull, dull. Try interspersing fiction—current and classic—with nonfiction: poetry, history, or biography.
  3. Do explore themes. Focus on a specific author, travel journals, childhood memoirs, books on food, or a literary issue (family, loss, working of fate). Don't do it for the whole year (see #2 above), maybe just 3 or 4 months.
  4. Don't choose for the whole year. It ties you into a rigid year-long schedule with no flexibility to add exciting new works you might learn about. And it's unfair for those who miss that one meeting.
  5. Do choose 2 or 3 at a time. This allows members to read at their own pace. It's especially helpful for those who travel or miss a meeting or two.

Ways to Select

  1. Vote -- All members make suggestions, followed by an open discussion, and vote.
  2. Rotate -- Members take turns, each choosing a book for a given month.

Finding Book Ideas

  1. Book Club Resources on the Web - see first tab or search < LibGuides Book Groups > for links to groups in other libraries
  2. Daily & weekly periodicals - The New York Times Book Review (every Sunday) is the biggie. But other periodicals review books, too: many local newspapers, USA Today, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News, People, Vanity Fair, to name some. A favorite is Bookmarks Magazine. Your library should carry it; if not, ask them to. Or pony up for your own subscription.
  3. Libraries and bookstores - Check out your public library, local bookstores, and national book chains. Most carry their own recommended book lists or lists of what other clubs are reading. Many libraries also stock "book club bags" with a discussion guide and multiple copies of a title; ask about them or look in the catalog.
  4. Social media book clubs - Oprah's Book Club 2.0, Booktalk.org, Goodreads, etc.
  5. Annual "Best" Lists -- Great Group Reads, Booklist Editors' Choice
  6. Top 100 Lists - At the close of the 20th century, collections of "best works" were issued. These are lists of the great classics. Who's on what list and who's not has been the subject of much debate. Try these links:
    • The Guardian: The Top 100 Books of All Time
    • Harvard Book Store: Top 100 Books
    • Modern Library: 100 Best Nonfiction
    • Modern Library: 100 Best Novels
    • Radcliffe Publishing Course selection of the top 20th century novels (1998;
    • and if 100 isn't enough, try 1001: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, edited by Peter Boxall.
  7. ALA Public Programs Office: "Let's Talk About It!"
    The ALA Public Programs Office has long been at the forefront of library discussion programs. In 1982, ALA launched the first national book discussion series, “Let’s Talk About It.” Since then, the range of discussion programs developed and presented by the ALA Public Programs Office has included film and audio discussion series, family reading, discussion and storytelling series, theme-based book discussion series, a radio program/reading discussion program, and more. Book lists, programming guides and scholarly resources on dozens of topics are free and available at the link below.

Holding the Discussion

How to Hold a Book Discussion

If you're leading a book discussion

  1. Choose one question at a time and toss it out to the group. (See Generic Discussion Questions below.)
  2. Select a number of questions, write each on an index card, and pass them out. Each member (or a team of 2 or 3) takes a card and answers the question.
  3. Use a prop ( or object) related to the story. It can help stimulate members' thinking about some aspect of the story. It's adult show & tell!
    • •maps, photographs, paintings, food, apparel, a music recording, a film sequence
  4. Pick out a specific passage from the book description, an idea, a line of dialogue—and ask members to comment on it.
    • How does the passage reflect a character...or the work's central meaning...or members' lives or personal beliefs?
  5. Choose a primary character and ask members to comment on him or her. Consider:
    • character traits, motivations, how he/she affects the story's events and characters.
  6. Play a literary game. Use an icebreaker activity to loosen you up and get your discussion off to an enthusiastic start.
  7. Distribute hand-outs to everyone in order to refresh memories or use as talking points. Identify the primary characters and summarize the plot.

If you're taking part in a book discussion

  1. Avoid "like" or “dislike.” Those terms aren't very helpful for moving discussions forward, and they can make others feel defensive. Instead, talk about your experience, how you felt as you read the book.
  2. Support your views. Use specific passages from the book as evidence for your ideas. This is a literary analysis technique called “close reading.”
  3. Take notes as you read. Jot down particularly interesting passages: something that strikes you or, maybe, that you don't understand. Take your notes to the meeting.

Generic Questions to Start Discussion

For possible questions to start discussion on specific books, check the back of the book, particularly if the title is a popular book club choice, or the publisher's website.  Or use a search including "reading guide" to find information on the various book group sites.  For classics or newer books, there may not be such guides, so here are some generic questions.

For Fiction

  1. How did you experience the book? Were you immediately drawn into the story--or did it take you a while? Did the book intrigue, amuse, disturb, alienate, irritate, or frighten you?
  2. Do you find the characters convincing? Are they believable? Compelling? Are they fully developed as complex, emotional human beings--or are they one-dimensional?
  3. Which characters do you particularly admire or dislike? What are their primary characteristics?
  4. What motivates a given character’s actions? Do you think those actions are justified or ethical?
  5. Do any characters grow or change during the course of the novel? If so, in what way?
  6. Who in this book would you most like to meet? What would you ask—or say?
  7. If you could insert yourself as a character in the book, what role would you play? You might be a new character or take the place of an existing one.
  8. Is the plot well-developed? Is it believable? Do you feel manipulated along the way, or do plot events unfold naturally, organically?
  9. Is the story plot or character driven? In other words, do events unfold quickly? Or is more time spent developing characters' inner lives? Does it make a difference to your enjoyment?
  10. Consider the ending. Did you expect it or were you surprised? Was it manipulative? Was it forced? Was it neatly wrapped up--too neatly? Or was the story unresolved, ending on an ambiguous note?
  11. If you could rewrite the ending, would you? In other words, did you find the ending satisfying? Why or why not.
  12. Can you pick out a passage that strikes you as particularly profound or interesting--or perhaps something that sums up the central dilemma of the book?
  13. Does the book remind you of your own life? An event or situation? A person--a friend, family member, boss, co-worker?
  14. If you were to talk with the author, what would you want to know? (Many authors enjoy talking with book clubs. Contact the publisher to see if you can set up a phone chat.)
  15. Have you read the author’s other books? Can you discern a similarity—in theme, writing style, structure—between them? Or are they completely different?

For Non-Fiction

  1. If your book is a cultural portrait --of life in another country, or different region of your own country--start with these questions first:
    • What does the author celebrate or criticize in the culture? Consider family traditions, economic and political structures, the arts, language, food, religious beliefs.
    • Does the author wish to preserve or reform the culture? If reform, what and how? Either way—by instigating change or by maintaining the status quo—what would be gained or what would be at risk?
    • How does the culture differ from yours? What was most surprising, intriguing, difficult to understand? After reading the book, have you gained a new perspective—or did the book affirm your prior views?
  2. Does the book offer a central idea or premise? What are the problems or issues raised? Are they personal, spiritual, societal, global, political, economic, medical, scentific?
  3. Do the issues affect your life? How so—directly, on a daily basis, or more generally? Now or sometime in the future?
  4. What evidence does the author give to support the book's ideas? Does he/she use personal observations and assessments? Facts? Statistics? Opinions? Historical documents? Scientific research? Quotations from authorities?
  5. Is the evidence convincing? Is it relevant or logical? Does it come from authoritative sources? (Is the author an authority?) Is the evidence speculative...how speculative?
  6. Some authors make assertions, only to walk away from them—without offering explanations. It's maddening. Does the author use such unsupported claims?
  7. What kind of language does the author use? Is it objective and dispassionate? Or passionate and earnest? Is it polemical, inflammatory, sarcastic? Does the language help or undercut the author's premise?
  8. Does the author—or can you—draw implications for the future? Are there long- or short-term consequences to the problems or issues raised in the book? If so, are they positive or negative? Affirming or frightening?
  9. Does the author—or can you—offer solutions to the problems or issues raised in the book? Who would implement those solutions? How probable is success?
  10. Does the author make a call to action to readers—individually or collectively? Is that call realistic? Idealistic?Achievable? Would readers be able to affect the desired outcome?
  11. Are the book's issues controversial? How so? And who is aligned on which sides of the issues? Where do you fall in that line-up?
  12. Can you point to specific passages that struck you personally—as interesting, profound, silly or shallow, incomprehensible, illuminating?
  13. Did you learn something new reading this book? Did it broaden your perspective about a difficult personal issue? Or a societal issue? About another culture in another country... or about an ethnic / regional culture in your own country?

Note

Staff of the ALA Library did not write these guidelines; they were added anonymously to the text when this information was part of a wiki we maintained.  We thank our contributor--and would be happy to add attribution.  We have done some light editing, updating, and styling over the years.