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Moderator Tips: The 'Job' of the Participant in Book Group

abstract:Your job as a participant of a book group discussion is not to understand. It’s a search, a seeking. A close-reading and discussion of a novel or short story does not require conclusions. Some writers write against easy answers, and endeavor to explore the ambiguities and paradoxes of life in their fiction.


July 17, 2007

Celebrating Inquiry

Once I wrote to an author, “You would do me a great honor if you could comment on your story, especially in reference to its haunting tone, and any particular meaning the story has for you.”

Part of the response I received celebrates the art of inquiry, and negates the quest of an answer, a right answer. The author states,

“…I write in order to say things that cannot be said in any other manner. I feel very honored that you are reading my story. Thank you so much. I hope the group of women will have their own interpretation of the story. As you know, my stories are ‘open-ended’, they do not have a precise and unique meaning, since they grow in the minds of the readers and become their own stories.”

The writer is fabulist Teresa Porzecanski from Montevideo, Uruguay. The story is “Rojl Eisips’ from The House of Memory (Feminist Press 1999)


The Job of the Reader

Your job, if you wish to accept it, is to savor the author’s use of language to capture, change, and reconstitute meaning.  A word, a phrase, a plot, anything, can be a seed for a reader that germinates and emerges from some subterranean territory of experience. If, in some way you relate, then you and the author have met on the path of recognition. Your recognition of what is being described, no matter how foreign the detail, gives credibility to the insight. It breathes as human and a connection has been completed between the author’s detail and yours.

 A Zen thought: “You can’t make a date with enlightenment.” –Shunryu Suzuki


Being Engaged by Literature 

Each human involved in a book group process has varying reactions to different works of literature. Sometimes a piece of writing will provide the power to open up that territory, and one member, or a few, will be deeply, intensely, challenged and engaged.

A supportive group can nurture that feeling, and supply the space for ‘on-focus’ discussion, for unblocking and developing those intuitions present when we read. These moments create group history. Tightening the focus--- could become uncomfortable. Bring in those old book group friends---confidentiality and trust --  and trust the process. 


Simple Questions

Questions to push the envelope are as simple as,

  • Who is the protagonist?
  • Who is the hero?
  • Who is the most haunted by burdens described?
  • Why do you think you are so moved by this story?
  • What is it about this story that, for you, is special?
  • What was the trigger point for you? 


Other BookBuffet Moderator Tips

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




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