From the Feb. 26 T&G/Ann Frantz
Read It and Reap, for book groups and readers
What’s wrong with a little extra gossip during book group meetings?
Nothing—if it’s kept in check. But excessive side conversation and loud exchanges of opinion are liable to diminish attendance by those who actually want to talk about a book. Moreover, not respecting the need to LISTEN, then comment, more or less one at a time, denies readers a chance to talk about how the book affected them, and leaves quieter types out in the cold and unhappy.
Book groups are popular not only because people love to try new books, but because they like to get out and talk about them. Meetings are a great social outlet as well. And sometimes, frankly, the book stinks and no one wants to talk about it. That happens, so in that case, talk about why it’s so awful.
The group I attend is talkative, in part because of its large size. Still, I love it, especially when a book actually excites them enough to keep the topic going throughout the meeting. But more often, I’m afraid, our Off-Track Bookies get sidetracked from the book by related topics, or hold personal conversations in pairs while others are talking. We may have to do something about it—or not. Members are good old friends, avid readers and boisterous arguers—which can be an asset, or a distraction. And, says member Mary Pratt, of Clinton: “I … enjoy the socialization as much as the discussion questions. We are aptly named.”
Mixing conversation with book discussion does work, oddly enough. The ideas start to fly in all directions once the imagination gets going. But when a group gets seriously out of control, the leader has a number of options to keep it moving forward:
Serve taffy. Put it right in front of the worst offenders. Anyone with a mouthful of the stuff can’t talk too much. But spare the wine—it can work in the opposite direction.
If these low-down tricks fail, it’s time for sensible suggestions.
Stay in charge. “What works is a few ice-breaking minutes before the book discussion, and then some time after,” says Northborough book clubber Linda Boch. “We have the hostess lead the conversation. Seems to work pretty well.”
Talk about ground rules. Discuss—one at a time—what’s working, or not, about the group. Set up some basics for courtesy and discussion.
Don’t jump, just guide. Many times, the conversation goes off on a tangent—but that tangent may well bear on the topic. Be flexible about returning to the specific questions of the book when a conversation has actually stemmed from it. Just don’t let it go too far, or deny others a chance to talk about the book they’ve actually read in preparation for the meeting. The leader is responsible for encouraging the group to listen and allow quieter members to express their opinions.
Ask a pro to help. Some groups may want to consider asking a librarian to other professional—check at the bookstore, schools, etc.—to lead the conversation a time or two. An outside presence can help keep the focus on the book, and upgrade the conversation with questions and reflections.
If your group is too large, consider segmenting it. Some members may want to break off to try other topics, for instance, or meet separately from the main group one month, together the next. Whatever works is good.
Eat. It soothes the savage in all of us—especially when there are men in the group. As my cousin, Richard Connery of Guilderland, N.Y., puts it: “We have lunch. It fixes everything.”
Bell the cat. The “cat” being the conversation. If it’s really bad, place a small bell adjacent to your arm and give it a ring when people get out of control. After awhile, members will anticipate the ring before they take over the conversation.
Pass the bell. Members must agree in advance that the person holding the bell has the floor until his or her comment is finished. Then, hand it off to the next one. This could be very annoying, so it’s only a last-ditch suggestion.
Always have questions ready for the discussion—and e-mail them to members ahead of time if you can. That allows readers to focus more on the book and be ready to discuss it. Doing a little homework on the author or the subject can add interest to the talk. By the way, there are more and more readers’ guides available. Try specific author pages or publishing houses, and there are several online reading group guides. Here are a few sources to start with:
The Book Club at First Parish in Concord recently read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” and is reading Emma Donoghue’s “Room” for March, to be followed by “Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography,” and Tina Fey’s “Bossypants.” The group meets Sunday evening and Tuesday morning, once a month. E-mail email@example.com.
“Reading, Sharing and Laughing” meets at Chaibo in Fitchburg for laughter and ideas. The group reads a variety of fiction and nonfiction. Meetings are the first or last Thursday night of each month. Book recommendations welcome. For info, look the group up at www.meetup.com/Reading-Sharing-and-Laughing/. The group is meeting March 1 to discuss Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus.”
Shrewsbury’s New Earth Book Club meets at the Worcester Barnes and Noble at 7 p.m. on specified Friday evenings. This group has met faithfully since the start of 2008 to review a fairly eclectic and challenging list of books. Most recently: “The China Study” by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, at its Feb. 24 meeting. To join, find this group at http://www.meetup.com/newearth/
Please send your book club questions or notes to Ann Frantz, whose column also appears at www.readitandreeap.blogspot.com. Send into in an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.