27 June 2008


As with my post the other day, today I post another article from e-newsletter Shelf Awareness--this one on a subject that we've frequently debated. I don't think we're the only book group around that struggles with the balance between book chat and digression! I don't think we're to the point that we need friendly reminder bookmarks, do you?

Deeper Understanding
Robert Gray: Behaving Yourself in a Book Group
I've participated in many book group discussions over the years, and there is one unwritten rule of human interaction that I've seen play out again and again. It also seems to happen in workplaces, classrooms, business meetings and, well, any setting where people gather in large enough numbers to create problems for one another.According to my unscientific observations, these groups often divide into three parts: a third who are fully motivated, a third who are less motivated and a middle third who tend to drift toward the stronger of the other two categories. "Discussion" is always a tricky endeavor, and the growing number of book groups nationally increases the odds of conflict. According to BookBrowse.com editor Davina Morgan-Witts, in 2001 the site began adding bookclub specific questions to the annual visitor survey and has since "surveyed about 1,500 visitors each year, and while the demographics of the respondents have changed little, and the amount of space devoted to book club specific information at BookBrowse has stayed fairly constant, the percentage saying that they are in a book club has grown exponentially--from under 20% in 2001, to about 30% in 2003, over 40% in 2006 and 50% last year. "What's also fascinating is the increase in 'serial bookclubers.' In our most recent survey 16% said they belonged to two or more book clubs. The record I've found to date is a woman in L.A. who attends 5 local book clubs each month--each one with its own character and reading styles."So how do you get these people to behave themselves?Donna Paz of Paz & Associates, the bookstore training and consulting firm, has long been involved with book groups: "While my husband, Mark, and I launched the publication Reading Group Choices in 1995 (sold to Barbara and Charlie Mead three years ago), I remain active with my own neighborhood book group and facilitate book group exchanges for our local book festival. What's common for all book groups is things can get sticky; new members don't realize when they monopolize the conversation; some people don't see that they talk over someone else's comments; it adds tension to a group and many members (and leaders) feel uncomfortable discussing these irritating mishaps."For her neighborhood group, she created a bookmark with "friendly reminders of how we can all contribute to an engaging, enjoyable discussion." The guidelines are simple but direct: 1. Respect space 2. Allow space 3. Be open 4. Offer new thoughts 5. Stay on the topic
Of course, the group dynamic changes substantially when the author of a work is present. One of our guides during this series has been Josh Henkin, author of Matrimony, who like many writers actively seeks connections with book groups.Henkin tries to let "the group determine how they want the discussion to proceed. I see it as their show and I'm simply the facilitator. This gets more complicated when there's an actual book group facilitator running the group. This person is generally paid, often quite handsomely--a phenomenon that's growing more and more common. I've been at some book groups where the facilitator did a wonderful job and at a few book groups where the facilitator did a less than wonderful job, in large part because the person was too intent on showing off, and so the conversation, despite my best efforts to steer it elsewhere, ended up being a conversation between me and the facilitator, with everyone else just watching. But usually the group members want me to take the lead, and they ask me to talk in general about Matrimony and the writing process, and then they ask questions."A shared vision may be one of the best ways to transcend the "rule of thirds" and have meaningful group discussions. I had that feeling when I heard from Susie Neubauer, head of technical services at Robbins Library, Arlington, Mass.: "It's time to write to you about the book club I love belonging to, a group which has changed my life. The Daughters of Abraham book group was born in the aftermath of 9/11. We are Jewish, Muslim and Christian women who want to learn more about each other's faiths. We read both fiction and non-fiction--the only criteria is that the book reveals something about one of the three Abrahamic faiths. We began in Cambridge, Mass. in the fall of 2002, and there are now nine groups in the Boston area and others in Washington, D.C., and other cities. Some of us have traveled to Jerusalem together."--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)

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