A reader’s letter sparks a discussion about good books for book groups.
Q: How do you know if a particular novel is a good choice for a book club? Every month we try to talk about a book and once each person comments on whether or not she liked it, we don’t have much else to say about the book. Do you have any suggestions to help us have better discussions?
A: Two general observations: first, it’s important to remember that people join book groups for lots of different reasons. Some just want to get out of the house, to see other adults for intellectual stimulation, to drink wine, or to be introduced to different books than those he or she would ordinarily read. Some just want to hear about what’s up with everyone, and so on. So, it is important to acknowledge that everyone’s expectations are different regarding what they want to get from the book group meeting. That said, my own personal feeling is that if I’m going to read a book and then spend an hour or so talking about it, I want something in return, whether it’s a new way of thinking about the way the world works, or insight into the ways different people behave under stressful conditions.
But maybe that’s just me. Many of my friends are pretty happy with discussing a book for 15 minutes or so and then spending the rest of the evening talking about their children, or their next vacation.
With that said, there are still ways that you can help your group have better conversations about the books you read. First, I’d suggest avoiding the broad question of who enjoyed the book and who didn’t. That particular issue seems to me to be beside the point, yet frequently I find that with many groups, the first question that gets asked is, naturally, “What did you think of the book?” But once that’s answered, the group is quickly divided into the pros and the cons. And all the subsequent responses to questions and topics of discussion are prefaced by statements like, “I really liked this book, but...” or “I hated it, and...”
Instead, try kicking the discussion off by asking more neutral questions. The one I think works best is “What’s the significance of the title?” Sometimes just asking this can begin a conversation that can go on and on, encompassing many other aspects of the book. I once led a book club that was discussing Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying, and I began by asking the group what the lesson was, and who, if anyone, learned it. We spent about 45 minutes answering that single question before we finally moved on to another.
I suppose an argument could be made that there’s something to say about every book. And, to an extent, that’s true. The problem is that for many books, there’s little or nothing to say besides one or two sentences: “I love epistolary novels”; “Boorrinngg”; “I knew who the murderer was on page 243”; “The Falkland Islands felt so real to me”; and so on. That is, you’re saying something, but a discussion is not likely to be forthcoming; instead you get merely a one-sentence answer in response: “I dislike them”; “This was one of my favorite books, ever”; “I knew whodunit on page 112”; “Yes, the author did a great job in describing Montenegro—it made me want to go there.” And then silence will fall.
So, how do you choose a good book for a book group, one that will generate discussion? Basically, what you’re looking for are character-driven books in which the author hasn’t told you everything there is to know about the characters or the plot. In a book group, what’s really interesting to discuss is everything that the author hasn’t—all those white spaces between the words and paragraphs. If you already know all the whys and wherefores of the novel, if the characters are one-dimensional and unrealistic, or if the plot is neatly wrapped up and tied with a festive bow, then you’ll find there’s little to ponder or wonder about, and very little to discuss.
Here are some characteristics of a good book for discussion:
1. It has an ambiguous ending.
There’s plenty to talk about when the end of the novel is a bit (or quite) opaque. Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods is a perfect example of this type of novel. What really happened to Kathy, way up in those Minnesota woods?
2. The main character of the book has to make a decision that will affect the rest of his or her life.
Lucky for book groups, this sort of situation occurs frequently in contemporary novels, because it’s always a fertile area for dis-cussion, as the group is unlikely to agree on whether the character made the “right” decision. Discussing that choice, and why the character made it, really gets to heart of who the character is. Ann Packer’s The Dive from Clausen’s Pier always leads to a lively discussion, simply because there will be as many different interpretations of Carrie’s motivation for making her choice as there are people discussing the novel.
3. The author’s done something unusual with the narrative structure of the novel.
My favorite example of this kind of novel is Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, and a good question for the group would be a three-parter: Why did Banks choose to tell the story from four different points of view? What would be gained and what lost if there were just a single narrator? And which of the four main characters should Banks have selected to tell the tale? I doubt you’ll have a lot of time to discuss any other topics if you begin there.
4. The narrator is unreliable.
Novels with unreliable narrators practically ensure good discussions. Once you read After Life by Rhian Ellis, I guarantee you’ll find yourself struggling with whether or not to believe that the story happened in the way that Naomi Ash tells us it did.
Sure Bets for Your Book Group
For this week’s list, 10 great discussion-prompting choices for your next book group:
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski
The Plague of Doves and The Round House by Louise Erdrich
In the Woods by Tana French
A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Sparrow and A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
Among Others by Jo Walton
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
You can find more book group tips on my website—www.nancypearl.com/?page_id=1190.