7 Tips for Leading a Lively Book Discussion Group

by Kristen Lauderdale, former Head Editor, INALJ Maine

7 Tips for Leading a Lively Book Discussion Group

Fall is an exciting season at my library! Adult programs will be starting up again soon, and this year will be my third year leading our small but dedicated book discussion group. Here are some tips and insights about what has worked well for me.

1.  Find thought-provoking and engrossing books to discuss.  The first time I set out to choose a book, I knew I had many choices but I was nervous about making a poor choice and turning people off of the group. One of the tips I read is that literary fiction and nonfiction tend to yield better discussions because they are usually more detailed, complex, and open to interpretation. My group loves to read books that make them feel like they are learning something new, and engaging with complicated issues.

Each month I pore over websites and check which titles are getting mentioned in lists of “Top Book Club Choices.”  Some wonderful online resources I’ve found are: Lit LoversReading Group GuidesBook Movement, and Good Reads.  I also get ideas through my news feed on Facebook because I follow bookish pages that frequently compile lists of notable books. Some examples include NPR Books, Amazon Books, and HuffPost Books.

2.  Let your group members have a say in what they read. Before each book discussion meeting, I use the resources listed above to pre-select five or so books that I think the group (including myself) will find intriguing. I prepare a handout for each group member with these titles and a brief book description, and let them use this information to vote on the next book. I also encourage them to bring in suggestions, and these are considered as well. This has been one of the most appreciated features of the program and has gone a long way to keep participants engaged and invested in the group.  They have raved about many of the books we’ve read, and so far we have not found any of the selections dull.

3.  Be prepared. In addition to showing up to each meeting armed with future book choices, I also make sure I have read the book in its entirety and have done a little bit of background research on the author, publication, and subject. I haven’t yet made handouts with facts about the author’s life the way the moms do in The Mother-Daughter Book Club (mostly because with current authors, not as much information is publicly available yet), but I am not going to let that stop me from trying harder this year. At first I felt I was being lazy if I didn’t write my own discussion questions, and that everyone would know and think less of me if I used a set of questions that I got from the internet, but I find such questions helpful. Not only do they give me a sense of what is considered to be discussion-worthy about the book, they are often more articulate versions of the questions I come up with.

One problem with these pre-packaged discussion questions is that they are usually very wordy, with questions consisting of several sentences, and it is pretty obvious you are reading from the paper when you ask them. My happy medium is to make a list of themes and interesting points I found while reading the book, and then ask them to discuss each theme. In my experience, this practice creates a balance in which the topics we discuss are more open-ended, while still being quite focused.

4.  Be comfortable leading and listening. The role of discussion facilitator was not an easy one for this introverted follower to step into, particularly since I am younger than the other participants, all of whom have many causes in their lives that they are very knowledgeable and passionate about. While this can make for a great discussion, many books can become a springboard into long, distracting political rants or over-sharing about personal family problems. It can be challenging to find an effective way to jump in and get the conversation back on track. In order to keep it a “book discussion,” I needed to become comfortable taking the lead, asking my prepared questions, and offering my opinions throughout the sessions. Once I found my confidence as the discussion leader, I also had to suppress the opinionated, show-offy former English major in me, who always wants to be heard and be ‘right.’ When it comes to group discussion, it is important to strike a balance. We all benefit from having our say and, in turn, we benefit from knowing when to listen.

5.  Be grateful for your group members. If you have people who read the books every month and show up eager to have a discussion, you have all you need.

6.  Be understanding and practical. While you will have some meetings when all of your regulars show up and you get inquiries from potential new members to boot, there will be other meetings where half of them didn’t get to finish the book, or all but one person got bogged down in other commitments. I try to accommodate everyone by allotting a few minutes at the beginning of each meeting for fresh reactions to the previous month’s book, so that anyone who was absent has the benefit of getting caught up on what they missed. Another accommodation I make is to aim for books that are between 300-350 pages. This keeps the load a little lighter for everyone, including me.

7.  Reward yourself for a job well done. Being the leader of the book discussion group often requires me to spend several evenings and weekend days a month to reading the book outside of work, since I cannot read during work hours.  While I enjoy almost all of our choices, they are not necessarily what I would choose if I had only myself to please. I also get some performance anxiety jitters throughout the day until the discussion begins. As a special treat to myself, I’ve made a ritual of obtaining a new book I really want to read, either on my Kindle or through the library, and taking time in the evening following the discussion to read purely for my own relaxation and joy.

Recommendations: Books We Truly Enjoyed Reading and Discussing

2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America, by Albert Brooks

The Poacher’s Son, by Paul Doiron

What Is the What, by Dave Eggers

The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson

The God of Animals, by Aryn Kyle

One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd, by Jim Fergus

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick

The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel


previously published on 8/29/13 under her former name and at the time title, Kristen Jaques, Head Editor, INALJ Maine

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