Who Will Speak for this Book?

The person who picked the book didn’t make the meeting. Strike one.

The book proved to be surprisingly difficult to obtain. Several of us couldn’t track down a copy in a timely way. Strike two.

As discussion limped to a start, there was too much awkward silence. Our book, which shall remain nameless (but its Nobel-winning author’s name rhymes with HELLO, as in HELLO!? What were we thinking?) had a satirical tone and an unlikable narrator, the kind of book that is a challenge in the best of circumstances. Here, it drew only frustrated dismissals. The only sparks that flew in this conversation were those showering off the axes that were being ground. Strike three, and we were out.

We did poorly by our classic author (whose name rhymes with smell-o). His work honestly deserves better. What could my group have done about our problem? Here are four suggestions:

1) Fix the Selection Process

When readers take turns picking the book, your group will get some inspired surprises, but will also get more duds. If too many ill-fitted books are coming from your selection process, consider setting some standards, discussing selections more carefully, or instituting a formal nomination and voting process.

2) Read the Book. Attend the Meeting.

These two guidelines may be the only rules book groups need. My group was guilty of violating them, and on this night, we paid the price. Too few of us had read the book, and the person who should have been ready to facilitate discussion couldn’t make the meeting.

3) Watch that Axe Grinding

An axe is too big and dangerous to swing in the middle of a group. Wield a scalpel instead when you don’t like the book. Cut at the damaged pieces instead of hacking the whole thing to shreds. If you practice these surgical discussion skills, you might find that the patient can be saved.

4) Who Will Speak for this Book?

If your meeting goes sour like ours did (and if you book group meets for long enough, one eventually will), remember that you can opt out. Don’t add insult to injury. If very few people have read the book, and no one can speak for it, and particularly if the person who recommended it is not in attendance, you might do better to simply take a pass.

I’m not saying you should avoid discussing controversial books. Sometimes it’s enlightening to discuss why a book doesn’t work. But when poor attendance, poor completion, and unhappiness with the book combine, it’s a recipe for trouble. Spend the evening discussing other reading, exploring ideas for future selections, and re-affirming your commitments to the group instead. This limits the damage a mistaken selection does to your group and leaves hope that your members can still go home with smiling faces.

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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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