We're delighted to offer a new monthly column, where librarians, publishers, and other stakeholders in the health of our reading culture can have their voices heard. We expect the conversation will open everyone's eyes to the array of services offered by libraries and the issues they face. Who better to host and direct that conversation than Nancy Pearl?
Q: Welcome aboard, Nancy. I wanted to start the conversation by asking about budgets, which I know we'll hear a lot about at the upcoming ALA Annual Conference. I have this uneasy feeling that the budget battles we're seeing now are deeper than the usual budget battles libraries fight during periods of economic stress. Is it me, or does this budget crisis feel more dangerous than years past?—Andrew Albanese, features editor, PW
A: I do think the current budget crisis is in many ways different—and more dangerous—from the tensions of the past. I am incredibly saddened when I hear people say that libraries (and librarians) are now irrelevant, since people can get all their information needs, as well as books to read, online. While most of us reading this in PW might not find the cost of a new computer, iPad, Kindle, Nook, or other e-reader out of our cost-comfort range, there are millions of people in the U.S. who can't afford one of those devices, or they live in places where good home Internet service is just not available. Where do they go?
I fear that the library profession and the many fans of the library system sometimes don't do as good a job as we could—and should—do in making our case to politicians. It is critical that we do so now. The public library is the last great democratic institution in America. It is a place where all people, no matter their ethnicity, race, place of origin, economic level, or age can walk through the door and be treated equally, with respect, by people with an ethic of fulfilling their needs. As a society that once valued libraries, I think we need to explore new funding models. As libraries, we need to align ourselves not just with politicians but with companies that believe the library's health is vital.
Q: I belong to a book club where, when it is each member's turn, we select a book for the group to read, do an author report, and have the group over to our home to discuss the book. We have been meeting for over 15 years. I tend to be more adventurous and select books that are not the usual plot or character-driven books—and my choices tend not to be well-liked. But my selections are very close to my heart, and I feel hurt when they are not understood. Last month I picked Disquiet by Julia Leigh and Genesis by Bernard Beckett. In trying to defend them, I said that I think it is important to stretch ourselves and experience a variety of books. There was a roar of disapproval. I understand that book selection is personal. Is there an essay or some material that could help me express the value of different types of books?—Sue Dixon, Edmonds, Wash.
A: Fifteen years is a long time for a group to stay together! I think your expectations for the group (no personal attacks and a realization that a book group is an opportunity to read and experience different kinds of book) are very reasonable. Whether a book club member likes a book is almost irrelevant—what matters is the discussion. Besides, I've always felt in most book groups, members just stop attending when they're not enjoying it any more. There's a quote I love—by that prolific writer, Anonymous—that applies here: "And when it was over, Arthur said, ‘well, it's all over.' "
Maybe you can reframe the discussion? I suspect that your group begins each session like most other groups: by talking about who liked the book and who didn't. While most groups start this way, I don't think it's the best place to begin, because it immediately divides the group. My preference is to open with a discussion of the significance of the title, or why the author chose to write from the point of view he or she did, something basically neutral that gets into the heart of the book, and then make the last question of the evening be "So, what did you think of the book?" Sometimes all you need is that first question: "What's the significance of the title?" and you'll find the discussion will be hot and heavy for the next 45 minutes or an hour. Three good examples are Ernest Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying, Ward Just's The Dangerous Friend, and Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods.
And, yes, there are many excellent books about book discussions that I'm sure your local library has available. Although they're older, I still find The Reading Group Handbook: Everything You Need to Know, from Choosing Members to Leading Discussions by Rachel W. Jacobsohn and Ted Balcom's Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader's Guide quite useful. There are also some good Web sites you might find helpful, including Reading Group Choices (www.readinggroupchoices.com/) and Reading Group Guides (www.readinggroupguides.com/advice/index.asp).