Does your book club suffer from multiple personality disorder? Some months, mine does. When my friends and I arrive, we can’t stop talking. We pour some wine and catch up on the latest happenings in our lives over the past month; we share stories about our travels, jobs, kids, and pets; and we swap ideas for non-club reading material. Then, we make our way to our seats for the discussion, and a hush falls over the group. The discussion leader clears her throat, glances at her notes, and asks with trepidation, “So, everybody, ummm, did you like the book?”
This schizophrenia doesn’t happen to us every time we meet, mind you. Sometimes our discussions take off at lightning speed, and we jockey for a chance to insert our viewpoint and voice our opinion. But, other times, we turn into strangers blinking at each other across a room, not sure how to get past “Hello, how are you, and how do you like this book?”
What’s the problem? We’re all intelligent people and accomplished readers. We’re more than comfortable with each other—we actually have fun together, and we’re not afraid to laugh at ourselves or at literature. So why do we often turn shy when it comes time to discuss a book?
According to a recent New York Times online article, some readers are giving up on face-to-face book clubs altogether and going the way of online clubs instead. Among the reasons they gave: discussions were mostly superficial, people talked more about themselves than the books they read, and some members kept quiet for fear of personality clashes. One disgruntled book club member was quoted as saying that, for her, “book club meetings frequently resemble explosive family counseling sessions where every infraction becomes indicative of a deep character flaw.” Yikes. Pass the wine, please.
Hearing this makes me want to go give my book buddies a hug and tell them I appreciate them. At meetings of my own book club, we can agree to disagree, admit we don’t know something, and freely ask questions to learn from one another. (I’ll never forget how much we learned during the discussion of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which has some racy scenes that can’t be simply glossed over.) Still, we can probably do better at discussions. We’re good, but we can discuss in a more lively, more interesting, more challenging way if we try.
In thinking on some of our best and worst discussions, the most memorable ones have mostly been on nonfiction selections. Our discussion of The Other Wes Moore, by Wes Moore, took an obvious turn toward a lengthy debate about nature versus nurture. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua, made most of us defensive and outspoken about our roles as parents and how our Americanized style of parenting compares to Chua’s Chinese methods. Warren St. John’s Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town, about a soccer team of refugee kids in a suburb of Atlanta, forced us to confront Southern/American prejudice and consider how we would deal with an influx of third-world immigrants making a home right down the road.
On the flip side, some of our worst discussions happened as a result of some of the very best books: Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson; Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. These great works cast a sobering shadow over our lighthearted gathering. We suddenly became a Literature 101 class waiting for—no, dreading—the arrival of a teacher who never came. We let the novels—their rich language, their fully drawn characters, their rich themes—transform our lively circle into a group of serious, silent students.
One friend of mine, a member of another happy book club here in town, discovered a helpful solution in a collection of book club cards with questions that apply to pretty much any book. The group felt a new energy when they answered questions like “Which person in power should read this book?” “Did any of the characters help you understand someone you’ve known?” “Will this book be relevant 30 years from now?” (I hate to tell you, but these Table Topics Book Club question cards have been discontinued.)
At book club, it’s important to keep it real. The most successful, enjoyable discussions will come not from mining a book for its hidden meanings or deconstructing a novel until things fall apart, but rather from finding the connections between books and life. If book club members wanted to talk about plot devices, denouements, and dramatic irony, we’d probably choose a classroom instead of a social gathering. (And yet there’s certainly no foul in throwing in a few literary terms along the way.) Some of the best discussions in my own book club arise from nonfiction books that automatically question our cultural, political, and spiritual views. But fiction can raise the same issues and generate the same discussion if we ask more than “Did you like this book?” “Did you like the ending?” “Did you like the characters?”
Instead, let’s ask some questions that make us think about ourselves and how we exist in the world:
- How would you feel if you stepped into the shoes of these characters—lived their lives, had their struggles, underwent their crises?
- What kind of mood did this book put you in—depressed, optimistic, angry, sad, uplifted? Why?
- How is the setting the same or different from our own world?
- What’s the source of the problems and tension in the book, and how much are those problems like our own?
- Could the characters change their world if they tried?
- Does your family have any of these same issues? In the book, what’s the nature of relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, siblings?
- Does the book have any familiar stories you already know—maybe from the Bible, folk tales, or everyday life?
- Which character is most like you? Which one scares you? Which one do you pity? Which one would you want to invite to dinner?
- How is this book a product of its time? Is it one that book clubs will still be reading in a few decades?
There isn’t anything groundbreaking about these questions or this approach. This is just a reminder to all of us of the whys and wherefores of book club. Most of us join a book club because we want to read something that makes us think, that opens up a different worldview, that has relevance for our real lives. My book club will be the first to say that it’s ok to start the discussion focusing on the book but to end up talking about economic issues, modern medicine, or world history. When that happens, we know it’s been a good evening—and a great book.