So, you just learned that you’ll be facilitating a book group at your library! “What?” you say. “I have to read and talk about a book?”
Some of us have felt the dread that comes along with facilitating a book discussion group. I still recall the feeling when I cautiously volunteered to lead a group after the previous leader decided to move to The Big Apple. I remember E telling me, from time to time, about the group dynamics that drove him crazy; something about one or two members trying to dominate and control the discussion. E, just out of college, was frustrated by the many opinionated members – retired seniors.
As luck had it, the first book I had to read and discuss was, Walden, by Thoreau. Are you kidding me? What type of group did I volunteer to lead? I read the book thoughtfully and with an open mind. I wanted to know more about Thoreau and his philosophy, so I did light research. Years had passed since studying the book in high school. Reading the book as a mature adult and looking for major themes was easier. I was able take those themes and correlate them to modern societal and environmental afflictions. After an unsuccessful search for ready-made discussion questions, I opted for general questions. They included: 1) how the group felt about the character and his quest for a simplistic lifestyle; 2) why was Thoreau so disgusted with society; and 3) was Thoreau convincing as a transcendentalist, and so on.
A facilitator is also a leader. It’s important to maintain focus and keep the discussion moving. It doesn’t take long to understand who is trying to monopolize the discussion. Over time I’ve learned when to jump in, contribute a comment, and call on someone else. This will keep the discussion lively and interesting.
My first meeting with our group went well. As a matter of fact, over the past seven years, I have come to admire their intellectualism and diversity of views. But, getting to this point in our relationship I had to study and understand each unique perspective. As each book is discussed I learn more and more about each participant’s background. Most of them are retired professionals; some of them have discussed books together for almost twenty years! There is a cohesion there that I find comforting. When we welcome a new member we try to include them in our discussion, drawing out an idea or relating an experience. Every member has a name plate because we never know when someone new will walk through the door.
Many people ask how we choose our books. It’s a simple democratic process. Every six months or so each member sends me a list of suggested book titles. I compile the list with brief annotations and send it out for voting. The top six titles are chosen. Sometimes we have a tie, so we vote on a tie-breaker. The book selections are varied and interesting. Fiction mostly, some non-fiction, and classics titles usually fill the list. In the past few years I’ve noticed that we are reading more and more bestsellers by award-winning authors, such as, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman and River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candace Millard.
In April we celebrate Poetry Month. I will cover that topic in a future blog.
Book discussion groups come in all shapes and sizes. Some members of a group will want to just listen. Some participants will never read the book, but want to come and understand it. Some don’t care if we talk about the ending before they’ve read it. It’s really a fascinating experience. Each group is singular and never be duplicated. Even virtual groups are in the mix. Penguin has a book club on Twitter (great marketing, right?). Books can be the catalysts wherever and whenever people have a need to share ideas.