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Book Discussion Groups
Book discussion groups were one of the first activities which libraries organized and are once again popular in many communities. This group activity gives its members a chance to interact on an intellectual level and stimulates interesting conversations. With the availability of many books in large print and recorded formats it is an “inclusionary” activity.
Persons with vision impairments or physical impairments can read the book in a format which best suits their needs. Book discussion groups are also library activities which can be taken to seniors where they live. Many activity directors of assisted-living facilities or senior centers are eager to find activities which encourage seniors to grow intellectually.
A successful book discussion group is one which meets the needs of the members, thus each book group will be structured differently. There are some overall guidelines to assure a smooth start.
- Announcement of the book discussion group should be made at least 30 days prior to the first meeting. Distribute informational flyers to bookstores, senior centers, recreation centers, doctors’ offices, and places of worship.
- Encourage patrons to register for the group by calling the library. During this initial exchange patrons should be asked if they would like to have the book in another format such as large print, recorded format, or Braille. Pre-registration also allows for preparation of nametags for the participants and, if requested, for reminder phone calls to be made.
- The room chosen should be relatively soundproof and free from noisy distractions to allow members to talk to each other without raising their voices. To facilitate discussion, chairs should be arranged in a circle or around a table. Members should introduce themselves, and share some information about their reading interests. The leader should face the door so that he or she may be alerted to members who arrive late.
- At the initial meeting, decide on the type of books which will be discussed, the length of the meetings, the frequency of the meetings, and whether the responsibility for leading the book discussions will remain with the library organizer or rotate among the members.
- The library organizer should choose a fairly short, positive book for the first book discussion.
- The discussion leader should have at least twenty to twenty-five discussion questions prepared in the event the discussion gets bogged down. The questions should be clearly stated, using simple language.
- It is important for the leader to listen to and be sensitive to all participants. Methods might have to be devised to deal with members who dominate the discussion to allow all members to have a chance to share ideas. Conversely, quieter members may have to be prompted to discuss their thoughts.
Selecting books for a book discussion can be both fun and challenging. Books should be selected which have substance and raise questions leading to good discussions. There may be a tendency for the group to want to discuss best sellers; however many of these will not lend themselves to challenging discussions. The books chosen should generate enthusiasm among the group members and offer intellectual growth.
The titles chosen should not focus on topics some members of the group might find objectionable. While censorship is not advocated, avoid books that contain language or situations which may offend members of the group.
Although most groups prefer to discuss a book which can be reviewed in one meeting, longer titles should not be excluded. Dividing the book at a specified breaking point and agreeing to end the session when the group reaches that point can facilitate discussions of longer titles. The following meeting may pick up at this point, after a short review of the previous session.
Titles for senior book groups should be selected according to availability in alternate formats. Some members may need to listen to the books, and others may find it helpful to use large print or Braille. The Montana Talking Book Library can provide you with a list of available titles which may be used for book discussions.
Although preparing 20 to 25 questions may seem like a daunting task for the group leader, there are many bibliographic databanks to facilitate preparation. Many of the publisher websites also include pages for discussions of their titles. After reading the book, if the leader is unable to formulate topics for discussion, he or she may consult one of the following resources. If book discussion leadership rotates, library staff could alert the leader that assistance in accessing databases is available.
- Vintage Reading Group Center: www.randomhouse.com/vintage/read/tips.html
- Reading Group Choices-Guidance for Group Leaders: www.readinggroupchoices.com
- Park Ridge Public Library: www.park-ridge.il.us/library/bkdiscguide.html
- AARP Book Talk Page: www.aarp.org/fun/books_movies
- Doubleday Book Club: www.doubledaybookclub.com
- BookPage Online: www.bookpage.com
- BookSpot: www.bookspot.com/discussionfeature.htm
- Simon Says: www.simonsays.com
While the Internet is great for finding current material, several books and a magazine also are helpful to the leader. The following books would be useful in starting book discussion groups and choosing books:
Balcom, Ted. Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide. Chicago: American Library Association, 1992.
Jacobsohn, Rachel W. The Reading Group Handbook: Everything You Need to Know from Choosing Members to Leading Discussions. Rev. ed. New York: Hyperion, 1994.
McMains, Victoria Golden. The Reader’s Choice: 200 Book Club Favorites. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.
Slezak, Ellen. The Book Group Book: A Thoughtful Guide to Forming and Enjoying a Stimulating Book Discussion Group. 2nd ed. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1995.
A periodical that gives information for book discussion groups and includes study guides to some books popular with book clubs is:
Book Club Today
P.O. Box 210165
Cleveland, OH 44121-9829
1 year (6 issues) $24.95
The following is a sampling of titles which seniors have found interesting and stimulated worthwhile discussions. The content and language were not found to be objectionable. The titles are available in alternate formats.
Burns Olive Ann. Cold Sassy Tree.
A teenage boy comes of age in the small town where his grandfather lives.
Cisneros, Sandra. House on Mango Street.
A Mexican-American girl grows up in a poor Chicano neighborhood in Chicago and dreams about having a home and becoming a writer.
Cunningham, Michael. The Hours.
Winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Hours blends the lives of two female characters - one living in 1949 and one in modern New York City - around the character of Virginia Woolf.
Frazier, Charles. Cold Mountain.
A wounded soldier braves the elements, the Home Guard troops, and his own illness to return home to his sweetheart, who has her own hardships to overcome on a farm in North Carolina during the Civil War.
Golden, Arthur. Memoirs of a Geisha.
An aged Geisha reminisces about her beginnings as an orphaned girl in a fishing village in 1929 to her life as a geisha and her old age as the distinguished mistress of a wealthy patron.
Guterson, David. Snow Falling on Cedars.
A Japanese fisherman is tried for the murder of an Anglo fisherman during a three-day trial on a fictional San Juan Island after World War II. The novel also explores the events and other interpersonal relationships among the residents, including the anti-Japanese feelings of the time and the removal of the Japanese- Americans to internment camps.
Harris, Joanne. Chocolat: A Novel.
On the surface Chocolat appears to be a story about Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk, who move to a French village and experience problems of acceptance. The work, in reality, is a complex novel which explores the themes of bitter and sweet as it examines topics such as community morality, loneliness, and belonging.
Hillerman, Tony. A Thief of Time.
Two corpses appear among stolen goods and bones at an ancient Navajo burial site. Tribal policemen Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee must plunge into the past to discover the truth. Hillerman combines police work, archaeology, and suspense into a good mystery.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God.
An African-American woman in the South in the early twentieth century dares to keep holding fast to her dreams through a series of disappointing relationships until she finds true love. The book is considered a classic of African- American literature.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day.
The perfect English butler during the summer of 1956 experiences a week-long journey to self-realization as his insular world fades.
Kay, Terry. To Dance with the White Dog.
Sam Peek, an elderly widower who recently lost his wife, discovers a mysterious white dog, which is invisible to all but Sam.
Kingsolver, Barbara. The Bean Trees.
A young woman finds herself the unlikely mother of an abandoned Native American child in a funny and heartwarming novel.
McCaig, Donald. Jacob’s Ladder.
This book starts at a plantation in the mountains of western Virginia, where three white families and their slaves find themselves transformed by the Civil War. McCaig carefully monitors the racial divide throughout the book.
Proulx, E. Annie. The Shipping News.
After a series of tragedies in Brooklyn, Quoyle moves with his two young daughters to Newfoundland, where he gets a job reporting the shipping news for a local newspaper and becomes a contributing member of the community.
Albom, Mitch. Tuesdays with Morrie.
The author is reunited with his favorite college professor, who is suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Each Tuesday Mitch visits with his former mentor to attend his final class on the meaning of life.
Conway, Jill Ker. The Road from Coorain.
The first woman president of Smith College chronicles her life from growing up on a sheep ranch in a male-dominated Australian society to her final triumph. Delaney, Sarah, and A. Elizabeth. Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters. Two remarkable African-American women tell the stories of their long lives as they experienced history.
Dillard, Annie. An American Childhood.
The author relates her poignant story of growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950’s.
Hubbell, Sue. A Country Year.
A librarian/naturalist writes about a year she spent on a farm in the Ozarks. The book is ostensibly about beekeeping, but is really about life.
Lansing, Alfred. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible
An unimaginable saga of survival of the ill-fated 1914 Trans-Antarctic expedition is retold, based on the diaries of team members and interviews with survivors.
McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes.
The author relates his poverty stricken Irish Catholic childhood in New York City and Limerick, Ireland and how he survived. The powerfully-written book won the Pulitzer prize.
McCullough, David. Truman.
The life story of the 33rd President is retraced in a long, but engaging and entertaining, biography.
Markham, Beryl. West with the Night.
The author relates the events of her life from her birth in Germany in 1902 to her childhood in East Africa where she learned to train and breed racehorses to her life as an African bush pilot in the 1930’s. In 1936 she became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from East to West.
Mayes, Frances. Under the Tuscan Sun.
The author relates her adventures of restoring a dilapidated Italian farmhouse, tending a garden, and enjoying the life and food of Tuscany.
Reprinted with permission from the Missouri State Library and Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.