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Getting Started: While there is no right or wrong way to organize a book group, take time to consider the basics before you start to help ensure you gather a group of readers attracted to a similar experience.
Purpose: Reading groups fulfill a variety of social needs for their members. They range from purely academic to almost purely social. The most important decision to make before you start a new group or join an existing one is to decide what purpose you want your group to serve.
Members: Your next decision involves finding members. Start with your friends and relatives who enjoy reading. Branch out to those in your office and to social or professional groups to which you belong. People who are enthusiastic, curious and have a sense of humor are a plus to any discussion. The majority of groups are homogeneous (groups of women and/or men who are friends or people who belong to the same organization). However, some of the most successful groups have men and women with a variety of backgrounds and life experiences. Much of your decision here depends on what you’ve decided your main purpose is. Typically 8-12 is a great number for allowing discussion and for fitting into people’s homes.
Timing and Location: Reading groups typically meet once a month for two hours. A set schedule, such as the second Wednesday of the month from 6:30 pm to 9:30 pm, enables members to plan ahead. Many groups supply dinner (often potluck), snacks or dessert. Meetings often rotate through members’ homes or are held in library rooms, bookstores or restaurants. Some groups even prepare “theme” food inspired by the book.
Selecting the Books:As part of starting your group you may have already decided what types of books you’ll read. It helps to find members who are interested in similar genres. Some groups decide to read paperback fiction, others read only nonfiction or books written by women. Many read a wide variety of authors and genres. Many reading groups adopt an annual reading list, while others select books a month or two in advance. Some groups conduct an annual vote to pick titles, while others rotate the responsibility among members of the group. As a participant, you will find yourself involved in a perpetual search for stimulating titles. Booksellers at Maria’s Bookshop are happy to offer suggestions. Click here to see what some other local reading groups are reading.
Running the Discussion:Your reading group’s discussions need to be stimulating and engaging, yet comfortable enough to secure the involvement of your members. Discussions will evolve along with the character of your group; some are serious and highly structured, while others are relaxed and lighthearted. Your group’s temperament will determine whether or not you need a facilitator. The facilitator is often the group member who suggested the book but can be any participant or a professional leader hired by the group. Any group will benefit by following a couple of common courtesy ideas to help everyone feel that their ideas are welcome, heard and respected:
- Let every member take turns as discussion leader, preferably leading it when the discussion is about the book they chose.
- Remind yourselves that different people, reading the same book, come up with different ideas and points of view
- Whether or not you use a facilitator, using some of the following topics as a guideline can keep the talk flowing:
- Emotional response: What did you enjoy about the book? Which situations and/or dilemmas resonated with your personal life experiences?
- Characters: Which characters caused strong reactions for you? Why?
- Theme and meaning: What was the author’s vision? Why did he/she write the book?
- Literary technique: What was the author’s style and voice? How did point of view affect the narrative? Did the author successfully employ symbolism in any way?
- You might also consider some of these general discussion questions:
- Who was your favorite character? Why?
- Do you think the setting enhanced the story?
- Did reading this book change the way you think about life? This question can offer insight into the lives of the people in your group, often highlighting diversity within your group.
- Has your interest in a central topic from the book been enlarged?
- Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?
Discussion guides are often found in the back of the books, or are available on line, through the publisher or through Maria’s Bookshop. Use what works and disregard the rest.
Maintaining momentum: Many groups fizzle out after a year or so. To keep your group vital and fun for all members consider some of these ideas for keeping things fresh and functional.
- Take time once a year or so to check in with each other about how things are going- What is working? What could be improved upon? What books did you love? how the group size is working, who is still interested in the group or who wants to give up their space.
- Evaluate your discussions every few meetings. Does everyone talk at once? Does one member dominate the discussion and squelch the ideas of others? These are all common trouble spots for book groups.
- Many groups lose members and enthusiasm simply because their members don’t know what is going on. Choose someone in the group to keep the group organized. This person would be responsible for letting members know when and where the next meeting is, what the book selection for the next month is, maintaining the contact list for the group, and letting Maria’s Bookshop know what your selection is for the month so we can make sure we have stock of your title.