Sunday, March 30, 2014

They came, they talked, they concurred ... great book!

What do you do when the discussion goes too far off topic?
Joan Killough-Miller, leader of the Women's Issues Book Discussion Group in Worcester, said "It’s hard to know where to draw the line between personal sharing that relates to the book and people who just don’t know when to stop! It’s nice when people enrich the discussion by sharing relevant personal experiences. (We’ve had a biologist bring in actual micrographs of “Henrietta Lacks” (HeLa) cells, and we have a couple of members who grew up in Nazi Germany. Their memories help make some of the wartime books real to the rest of us.) But sometimes the conversation veers off in an irrelevant direction, and I have a hard time bringing it back!"
Not an unfamiliar problem. In Lancaster, we recognized chatter's inevitability—and its popularity—by naming ourselves The Off-Track Bookies. But, face it: competing conversations destroy the main topic in the room.
Let's be truthful: Women love to talk. That's one reason book groups are so popular among us. Men do have or attend book groups, and I'd love to hear if this problem is endemic to their experience as well.
Solutions mostly come from within. A strong group leader bears the main burden for reining in side conversations. While unintended, chatter is rude and distracting. If any member has a hearing impediment, participation becomes difficult. Many times these conversations are not whispered but spoken at the same level of the main conversation, or louder.
We all learned better than this in school, right?
The biggest problem is that getting together after a few weeks' absence is more than tempting; it's almost obligatory to share what's up, what we missed last time, what we're reading now, a particular author's other books, or one of the endless gossip topics related to movies, church or work life, people we know in common, the winter's broken arms and other injuries ... and on and on and on!
Anne Young, of the Heywood Library book group, resolved the issue: "When we first started, we did have this problem," she said. But time constraints for a one-hour meeting just don't permit it. "I allow 5 minutes after we begin for people to speak about other things. (One of the benefits of this is one of our members informed us about the program on PBS, Channel 44, that reviews books daily.) Since I am the facilitator, I limit the discussions, but allow people the chance to speak as they wish at the end of our meeting. I guess this is the other benefit of having the meetings at the public library versus a home meeting. Many of the members linger longer discussing other books or events after the meeting."
Establish ground rules when you launch a book group (they'll need to be restated, sometimes at each meeting). Plus, use email as a reminder, if necessary: no crosstalk, instead respect the main conversation (and those speaking); hold back once you've stated your opinion, to allow everyone a chance to talk about the book; stay on topic—limit comments to the book on hand, or at least related literary info.
One group leader allows a half-hour's conversation as she sets out snacks, then it's time to focus.
These things seem obvious and basic, yet groups ignore them. Strong leaders need to be coaches, cheerfully reminding everyone to stay with the main discussion and reaching out to quieter members, who may hold back rather than compete with the babble. It's the leader's job to make sure everyone has a chance to speak. Yes, there is a communal call to book group meetings, but many attend because they're interested in the book and want to discuss it!
It all boils down to one thing: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Don't cut another person's point of view to shreds, interrupt him or her, or otherwise show disdainful disagreement. It's OK to think differently, but it's not OK to pierce others' ideas. We're all fallible, and discussions are made up of differing opinions. You don't have to be a 1950s good girl in your manners—just follow the basics. To neglect that is to risk losing members who might otherwise contribute to the understanding of a selection.

Area book groups for April

A reader suggests forming a network of area groups to allow shared resources, such as an author visit, and communications. Not sure how to go about that, but it's worth considering. Any ideas? Send them to the address following the column.
Worcester Public Library readers will meet at 7 p.m., May 20, to discuss "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguru.
The Women's Issues Group, meeting April 14 at Barnes & Noble, Worcester, will focus on "Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers," by Valerie Lawson. (This story is also at the movies, as "Saving Mr. Banks").
Members of the Crawford Library group in Dudley will discuss "The Book Thief" by Marcus Zusak at their 6 p.m., April 3 meeting.
The C.S. Lewis Society of Central Massachusetts will discuss Henri Nouwen's "The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming" at both April meetings, at 9 a.m. April 12 and 26 (Saturdays) in Auburn Public Library. Nouwen's encounter with Rembrandt's masterpiece is the topic.
Readers at Fitchburg Public Library will discuss "Defending Jacob" by William Landay during meetings at 1 and 6 p.m., April 9. Call 978-829-1780 for details.
On April 10, at noon, members of Leominster Public Library's book group will discuss "Mudbound," by Hillary Jordan. Edward Bergman, director of adult services, has details. The Brown Bag Book Group meets one Thursday each month for an informal book chat led by Jane Maguire. Bring your lunch; Friends of the Library provides beverages. On April 28, there's a 7 p.m. discussion of Stephanie Reents' "The Kissing List," short stories written by Holy Cross faculty member Reents. Patrick Ireland will lead the discussion.
Lancaster's Off-Track Bookies will discuss B.A. Shapiro's "The Art Forger" on April 10.
O'Connor's Books, Brews and Banters group will discuss Ann Patchett's "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage" at 6:30 p.m., April 23.
The April 30 selection at Heywood Library in Gardner is "The Interestings," a novel by Meg Wolitzer.

Ann Connery Frantz invites your ideas and questions about book club gatherings at ann.frantz@gmail.com. Groups, send the next month's selection by mid-month for end of month publication.


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