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Book Discussion Groups: Hosting and Facilitating

Resources for establishing a book discussion group

Hosting a Book Discussion Group

"The art of gathering begins with a purpose: When should we gather? And why?”
-- Priya Parker, from The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters


This page contains resources on facilitating book discussion groups, including tips on leading discussion, resources for hosting virtual discussions, and a bibliography on facilitating and leading group conversations. 

Resources for Facilitators

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?
  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?

Bibliography - Facilitating Groups and Hosting Conversations

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters

Drawing on her expertise as a facilitator of high-powered gatherings around the world, Parker takes us inside events of all kinds to show what works, what doesn't, and why. She investigates a wide array of gatherings--conferences, meetings, a courtroom, a flash-mob party, an Arab-Israeli summer camp--and explains how simple, specific changes can invigorate any group experience. The result is a book that's both journey and guide, full of exciting ideas with real-world applications.

Collaborating with Strangers: Facilitating Workshops in Libraries, Classes, and Nonprofits

Leading readers through a unique framework that breaks down barriers to collaboration while also kindling long-lasting enthusiasm, this manual includes testimonials from workshop participants that demonstrate the benefits of a Collaborating with Strangers (CoLAB) workshop; step by step guidance on every aspect of organizing and presenting a CoLAB workshop.

The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking

The fifty easily applied techniques in this timely manual spur creativity, stimulate energy, keep groups focused, and increase participation.

Running Book Discussion Groups

Step-by-step showing how to build, improve, and maintain successful, engaging book discussion groups.

Teen Book Discussion Groups @ the Library

Techniques for encouraging teens to share their responses to books under discussion.

Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses "No, But" Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration

Executives from The Second City--the world's premier comedy theater and school of improvisation--reveal improvisational techniques that can help any organization develop innovators, encourage adaptable leaders, and build transformational businesses.

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.