Group of young women reading in the library of a normal school in Washington, D.C.; courtesy Library of Congress

One night at a bar, some friends and I realized we had all read the same novel as kids — The Girl With the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts, about a bookworm named Katie who has telekinetic powers. Discovering we had all devoured this story of girlhood isolation led us to other childhood titles that had stuck with us: Ellen Conford’s And This Is Laura, The Pinballs by Betsy Byars, and Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly. The list went on and on, as did we, staying past last call to keep talking — about the characters, plots, and all the memories we had attached to them. Though I have never been part of an official book club, I imagine the conversational magic that happened that night is similar to what goes on in such groups. I was recently asked to speak to two local book clubs about ways to discuss what they read, which opened the door to writing about the experience and offering some of the tips I gave to Pasatiempo readers at large.

Will Shwalbe, author of the wildly popular memoir about reading with his terminally ill mother, The End of Your Life Book Club (2012), and the follow-up, Books For Living (2016), has said that the most important question we can ask is, “What are you reading?” It is a gentle overture of friendship yet a provocative conversational gambit — but at the book clubs I visited, the members’ biggest concern was how to steer the talk for maximum participation when everyone there has read the same book. 

My first suggestion for facilitating discussion takes a page from St. John’s College seminar pedagogy, in which one person comes prepared with an “opening question” for the group — a question to which he or she does not know the answer. Book club-specific examples might run along the lines of why a character left her children when she so obviously loved them or what the significance was of so many references to the color yellow. Another tactic comes from a former college creative-writing workshop teacher who required everyone to contribute constructive criticism by stating one big good thing, one big bad thing, one small good thing, and one small bad thing about the story at hand. While that is somewhat specific to criticizing undergraduate manuscripts-in-progress, it can be extrapolated upon to suit the depth and breadth of a novel, or applied to stylistic choices made by writers of memoir and other nonfiction forms.

As long as everyone stays respectful and has a sense of humor, there is no reason there can’t be passionate disagreement. Getting past “I just don’t like it” comes down to articulating the differences between your personal reading preferences, what makes something an interesting or worthwhile story, and being open-minded about why others might love a book that bores or upsets you. You might be responding to the prose style, the narrative voice, or the specific kinds of word choices an author makes. Maybe you can’t stop picturing the characters in your childhood home, and you don’t like the way they’re treating it. As long as you have reasons and are willing to listen, any way you are moved to talk about a book is valid. I once recommended The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger to a friend for her book club. Though my friend loved it, her book club did not because time travel is not real — and that was the end of their discussion. Someone else I knew did not like the book because she thought the main character had thrown her life away to wait for a man. Though the latter example might be highly political, it engages the substance of the novel, while the former refuses to do so. (I read the book years ago and still find myself musing over the plot’s logistics in the middle of the night.)

Both book clubs I visited were for women of retirement age. The first met through their church, and the second was more ragtag — friends of friends who met because of their love of reading. I then found out my neighbor, a forty-year-old photographer, is in a book club that has been meeting for close to 20 years, though she joined just a few years ago. The original members met through the bulletin boards that used to hang in cafés and bookstores, and over the years they have become close friends. The structure has become lax as of late; my neighbor admitted she doesn’t always read the books, but she loves hearing others talk about them over dinner and a drink. The group’s founder, a speech therapist named Kim Davis, told me that they often talk about what they are reading individually rather than discussing one book — and then she confessed she has joined a second, more focused book club. Her new group ranges in age from forty to eighty, which Davis appreciates for the diversity of perspectives that brings.

Like many modern book lovers, Davis is a member of the social network Goodreads, where she keeps lists of what she plans to read. Though Davis uses it purely for organizational purposes, the platform allows users to engage in discussion topics and post short opinions and reviews. This avenue can be useful for people who want to talk about books but are not inclined toward in-person social interaction, while the face-to-face nature of local book clubs offers dialogue that weaves and moves and digresses to unpredictable places. When it came up in one group that I had recently watched Gone With the Wind for the first time and hated it, the members reacted with raucous shock, demanding to know what about it I had not loved — which led to a discussion about cinematic and literary portrayals of slavery and womanhood, and of the time periods and regions of the country in which we’d grown up. I could have stayed there for hours. There was so much to talk about.  

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