Let’s talk about book group books. I’ve been leading the Field Notes Book Group for some years now, and I’d like to share some of my thoughts about the things you need for a good book group discussion.
You want books that people are going to want to read. Obviously if you choose a book and most of the people in the group don’t want to read it, or are unable or unwilling to read the whole thing, you’re going to have trouble coming up with a good discussion of the book. Sometimes a book that’s too long is a problem (though we solved that problem once by choosing a long book, Shantaram, in June and reading it over the summer, meeting in September to discuss it; clearly that’s not always an option, of course). Sometimes a book is too dense, especially if it’s a nonfiction book, or sometimes the language of the book is too difficult for people to get into (to my surprise, that was a problem with Persuasion; the old-fashioned language Jane Austen uses wasn’t a barrier for me, but it was for a number of the readers).
They don’t have to be books everybody’s going to like. This is important, because you are NOT going to find books that everybody likes, not if you have a lively group (and that’s the goal, isn’t it?). Some of the best discussions we’ve had were about books that at least some people disliked, and disliked vehemently (we even had one discussion where just about everybody in the group disliked the book, and that was a fun meeting). What you don’t want are books that people are lukewarm about, because there’s nothing much to say about those books once you’ve said “Yeah, it was okay, I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it.”
They should be books at least some people in the group are really going to like. You can have a meeting where everybody hates the book and everybody feels so strongly they want to explain exactly what they hated about the book (it’s better if they hate different things about the book), but unless that’s the kind of energy you want to deal with at every meeting, you’ll do better if those meetings are few and far between.
The book should have something worth discussing, beyond just the characters and the plot. Yes, these are good places to start. A book where you dislike or disbelieve every character is not going to be one you enjoy reading, and I personally have little patience for novels which don’t have some semblance of a plot. But if you want to have a discussion that’s longer than a few minutes, picking a book that’s all about the “twisty” plot isn’t going to work; once the people in the group have finished arguing about whether that twist made sense or whether they were or weren’t surprised by it, there’s not a lot more to say. A book that’s set in a place or time people weren’t familiar with before reading it can lead to great discussions; a book that turns on issues people in the group didn’t know about can be a revelation.
On the other hand, it’s not a good idea to choose something controversial just for the sake of being edgy, unless you have the kind of group where most of the people have no problem reading in your face kind of books. This includes books where there’s a lot of cursing, or a lot of sex, or a lot of violence (so, no Jo Nesbo for my book group!), if you know some members of your group are going to be turned off by those things. Trust me, you will not be limited to children’s books or the blandest of novels if you’re being careful about language or violence, and your group will be long lasting if you’re not deliberately choosing books that will offend some of the members.
Along the same lines, when the group is selecting a book, if there’s a topic that is genuinely offensive to one member of the group, even if the rest of the group might want to read it, it’s respectful of the feelings of that member to take the book out of consideration for selection. This came up once in our group: among the books I had suggested for the next month was Quicksand, a novel about a school shooting. It turned out to be a fascinating psychological study of a young woman who was being charged with murder in connection with the shooting, but two people in the group said they absolutely did not want to read anything involving a school shooting, so that was that. Could we have had an exciting and deep discussion of the issues in that book? Sure. Would it have been appropriate if the book were triggering or unduly upsetting to one of the members? No.
The book you choose doesn’t have to be something you yourself have already read, either. Sometimes that makes it easier to sell a book to the group if it’s one I’m enthusiastic about and know is a great read because I’ve already read it (maybe multiple times), but a book group is about exploration and discovery, for the leader as well as for the members. Sometimes you just have to take a chance on something you haven’t read yet, putting yourself in the same position as the rest of the group. If nothing else, choosing a book you haven’t read means you don’t feel you have to justify the book to everybody else if it turns out other people aren’t as enthusiastic as you are about it.
It’s up to the people in the group whether you want to do nonfiction as well as fiction, or whether you want to limit yourselves to a particular category of books. Some of the best books we’ve read in the group have been nonfiction (the question of which books I think have been the best will have to wait for another post), though not all the nonfiction books have been winners. If you’re going to read nonfiction, I think you have to be careful about finding books that will appeal to the whole group, books that aren’t too technical but at the same time aren’t too superficial, which can be more difficult than choosing novels for a group.
Finally, while you can use online listings of “the best books” of the year, or the “best nonfiction” or the like, I recommend that you don’t just rely on those lists, unless you’re very familiar with the reviewers and have a sense of what they think is good or not. The one book I mentioned that just about everybody in the group hated was one chosen from a group of the “best books of the year,” which made all of us wonder about what the criteria were for calling something the “best.”
Still to come: my choices for the best books we’ve read so far in book group. Stay tuned!