by Amanda Viana, Head Editor, INALJ Massachusetts
Four Rules for Book Club Success
When I started my first professional position about a year and a half ago, I had to take over some duties which were totally new to me. One of the most important was facilitating the library’s two book clubs. Not only were former library employees, former and current library volunteers, current library board members and many community stakeholders book club members—the clubs were also consistent sources of programming statistics. Aside from an afternoon in a week-long intensive information literacy instruction course and a rather short-lived Teen Book Group, this was my first experience with a book club. Despite feeling as though I was thrown in the deep end of the pool with only two weeks before my first book club meetings, I mustered up my courage and gave it my best. It wasn’t perfect but it was fun, and over time I’ve learned some things that make it one of the more enjoyable parts of my job.
At first it was difficult for me to gauge when to start the book. If I started too early I’d forget important details or I’d read other books before the meeting and get them confused. Now I know to start about a week before; having a few days between finishing the book and facilitating the discussion gives me time to make connections and come up with questions. Ideally I’ll have read the book before I select it for the group or it’s a classic or a book club regular that I can feel confident choosing. Between finishing the book and book club I use author and publisher sites, NoveList and other sources (listed below) to find questions and background. Annotating the questions helps me feel prepared and confident when I walk into the room.
Unsurprisingly, like most other patrons, book group participants expect librarians to know just about everything off the top of their heads. It’s a natural assumption considering that you’re often the information professional they trust with their most important queries. In addition to looking up information about the book, reading carefully and taking notes, and researching possible questions, I make a point to recognize topics that the book club might ask about. If the book is set in a foreign country or historical time period, if it discusses a medical condition or legal procedure, cooking or gardening I make a point to do some reading about it. I also research the author, as I’m almost always asked about their careers and personal lives. I read author websites, reviews and interviews (NPR is often a great source for interviews). When I can, I bring in supplemental material to enrich the discussion: I play clips from interviews, show pictures, maps, and other books to enhance the experience. And I always bring my iPad—you never know when you’re going to get a stumper.
When I first started the only experience I had discussing books was in my literature classes as an English major in college. I was often too didactic, and silence made me nervous. One of the things I’m still working on is having patience and learning to wait for answers. It felt more like a class instead of a club and it wasn’t as fun for the group or for me. Instead of nervously trying to fill the silence, asking yes or no questions, or posing over-long, overly expository questions, I try to ask thoughtful questions and give participants the opportunity to mull them over before attempting to move the discussion along. The insights that come from this kind of atmosphere are incredible and often lead to follow-up questions and comments from the group.
Be thick skinned
For the first few months of my tenure as book club facilitator I didn’t have to worry about choosing the titles because my predecessor had planned ahead. If someone didn’t like a book it was easy to let it roll of my back. I was surprised by how hard it was to hear a book I really enjoyed criticized; I quickly learned that it was easier on me to not choose my favorites. Accept that no books will be universally loved. Learn to think of a few reasons why you choose a title—great reviews, selection by many other book groups, books from the canon—and don’t get defensive about the criticism. To take some of the pressure off of myself (and make the group members feel more involved) I made up a list of my potential choices and some recommendations from group members along with brief descriptions and asked them to vote. This way we share in the responsibility of the choice, and those who like to recommend titles feel heard. I had to learn to negotiate different personality types, step in sometimes to make sure quieter members are heard and validated or point out to a stronger personality that their opinions on the text are just that. And one thing I always tell my book club participants is that you don’t have to like a book to have a great discussion; some of our best discussions have been about books that most of the group didn’t enjoy.