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Moderator Tips: Laying The Groundrules


It has always been my contention that book groups epitomize a contradiction in terms. Reading is a, if not the, most isolated activity. A book group weds that isolated activity with animated social discourse. One activity enriches the other; some say they are linked inextricably. Once we read a book that moves us, we want to find someone with whom we can discuss it. A book group fulfills that paradigm.


August 09, 2004

This is my first “Moderator Tip.”

As it marks the first step on a new journey, it seemed appropriate to offer a few remarks concerning the launch/initiation of your book group’s discussion. Please email any comments or criticism, and suggestions for future columns. If you are a moderator, volunteer or professional, everyone at would benefit from your response.


Members of a book group, as an obligation of that membership, should have read the selection for their gathering. This requires “alone time,” concentration, and time management. As members read the assignment, some plow through relishing the fun of the read. Others read more contemplatively, and others still may read the text alert to plot, and character development, and choice of language and narrative voice, in preparation for the discussion. Moderators read thinking, what are we going to talk about and how am I going to get them started? Or not. All book groups are and are not alike. My assumption is that the way discussion gets initiated has the same distinction.


The first goal is to get started.

Sometimes the social banter pre-discussion approximates cocktail party din, and could continue on its own inertia unless acted upon by an outside force. “Get your refreshments, and let’s get going,” seems as good a start as any. Once, a woman in one of my groups earned her teaching degree and began to teach. She told me that she always remembered my rallying call, “Let’s come together,” and used it with her students. She thought it  very respectful. Use this or any variation if your people need a little encouragement to settle down, sit down.


As you gather together,

feel the energy you all bring to the moment. You’ve managed to get the book read, and be present. Now, as you arrange yourselves in your seats (hopefully, you can all see each others’ faces), all that energy is being contained --- momentarily, before it gets released. In some groups, comments just begin to flow. The wrong kind of opening remark can deflate all that power. A remark like, “This was the worst book.  I hated this book. Who picked this book?” creates a malignant mass of tension and bad vibrations. Participants who readily spew these negatively powered comments (that seem to fulfill some misdirected inner need on their part) stifle the group’s flow of energy. Crush it, actually. The rest of the time is spent in attempted recovery.


Back to just getting together: so much initiative has already occurred to get members to the place where they now sit. So much busy-ness of life had to be negotiated.  I suggest you take a deep breath, and let this moment be honored. With a ritual, perhaps. Even something as simple as, “It is good to come together again,” creates that contemplative opening, like ‘Grace’ at mealtime, or the music in a church or synagogue before the service begins. We need to be grateful for things we take for granted --- the ability to read, the access to fine books, the leisure time to read them and then meet to discuss them. We must not ignore these small but mighty freedoms we share. You may decide to create a prayer of thanks.


You may decide to construct a time at this beginning point

that honors each and every one of you. Perhaps allow each of you to say one short sentence or a few words about the book. Allow each person to speak until everyone has spoken. When I do this with my groups, my rules are that each person must speak, and no one can repeat what another has said. We go in no particular order, just when someone is ready, until all have spoken. I always write down what is said, and who said it. Or, everyone can come to the meeting having chosen a passage to read out loud or discuss. These can be announced and recorded too. Someone in your group can do this, be the designated recorder. In this way, a calmness, a feeling that what you are about to do – discuss a book – takes on an importance that it may not have had as the flurry of activity to get started was in the room.


Once you establish this ‘in between time,’ your minds have an opportunity to clear, and focus. That space between the busy outside world and the discussion can be your doorway. A prayer, and/or a ritual, honors you, each of you, and you as a part of a group, and the group itself. You open your mind to those mysterious and wonderful thoughts that can emerge when once ‘inside’ a sharing discussion. You open up to the process of knowing and experiencing the universe in deeper and, perhaps, different ways. Enjoy.


Rachel Jacobsohn,

Author of The Reading Group Handbook, Hyperion (1998) 

Founder of ABGRL,

The Association of Book Group Readers and Leaders

P.O. Box 885, Highland Park, IL 60035


Next column: Specific ways to begin the discussion.

Send in your suggestions to be included.





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