Useful Questions, Part Two

Here’s another installment of four questions that a book group leader or concerned participant should be ready to use when the discussion is lagging.

Question 1: What is the central conflict in the book?

When to use it: When discussion of the book is scattered and missing the main point

A few odd comments can send your group tilting at tangents while the main ideas of what they’ve read are lost. Some kind of conflict, tension, or central problem is usually there at the heart of a book, driving the action, generating suspense, and leading to the behaviors and emotions of characters. In good writing, the central conflict is often the engine that makes everything else in the writing go. Getting group members to discuss what they view as the central conflict may also help readers understand each other’s reactions when interpretations of the book differ.

Question 2: What other books would you recommend to someone who liked this book?

When to use it: When you’ve run out of things to say about the book itself; when you want to make connections to other reading experiences

If conversation of the book itself is dwindling this is a handy question to ask. It’s especially useful when reading something from a subject matter or genre with which only some of your members are familiar, as they can provide guidance for others who like the book but don’t know where to turn next. Between them, a group of readers can quickly make a web of connections to similar reading experiences.

Question 3: What does this book say about the time and place in which it was written?

When to use it: When you want to connect your reading choice with the rest of the world

If you’ve read an older book, or a book by an author from another culture, it’s important and interesting to study it in the context of the time and place from which it emanated, not just from your current perspective. If the book is from your group’s own time and place, it’s philosophically interesting to think about what the book says about our contemporary world. Another way to phrase this question might be to ask what a reader from another place or time would think about us if they were to study the book from their perspective.

Question 4: What emotions did this book bring up in you?

When to use it: When the discussion is too abstract and lacks feeling; when your readers are struggling with how to phrase their reactions

Our core reactions to a book–a flash of anger, the flush of excitement, nagging worries, a swoon of rapture, even feeling bored or upset–are more honest and often more interesting to discuss than all of the literary analysis our big brains can produce. Sometimes we may not even be able to explain the reaction that a book creates in us, but by sharing these reactions with a group, we may come to understand them better.   This little question can be a quick tool to unlock these reactions and add fire to a lifeless discussion.

Next week, I’ll be back with one more set of four questions. Collect ‘em all and trade them with your friends!

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On... Fantasy Fiction and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups.

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