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Moderator Tips: How To Pick Books For Groups

abstract:Picking the right book for a particular group is a wonderful challenge.  The first consideration is to determine the group's reading goals. Subject matter is of course important, but there are other considerations such as the author's style, the complexity of the book's structure, language and more.


July 02, 2005
A few weeks ago one of my groups read David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas: A Novel, (Random House 2004) with mixed success.  Half the group enjoyed the novel and half the group found it "difficult", creating two camps along whose lines regularly divide when books get tough.

In examining the nay-sayers complaints, they related mostly to the complex structure - Cloud Atlas is a sextet; a collection of six different stories with common threads and imagery appearing in each, but he introduces different characters, time periods (from the mid 1800's to a future dystopia), settings (a ship, a castle estate, a nuclear power plant, a nursing home, a post-apocalyptic version of Hawaii, a dystopic industrio-corpocracy), and most interestingly, he uses different language—inventing a whole dialect for two of the sextets out of word fusions to match the time period. "What is the author's point; what is the book's message; I just get into one story and get jolted into the next?" It's difficult!

The first episode stops abrubtly mid-sentence, brilliantly ending that story with a jolt that shakes the reader.  It is at this point that the reader has a choice: drop the book in favor of a more traditionally told story, or, give the author the benefit of the doubt and read on to see where this journey is headed. 

My goal is to challenge myself and my groups to do the latter, and in so doing perhaps discover together that this strange form, like sparking neural synapes in a mulitude of directions rather than a liner flow pattern, will enable us to take our reading enjoyment to another level of complexity, and sustain our concentration and attentions longer—ultimately with exciting pay-offs.

A book group is the perfect medium to do this, unlike reading alone, you have all your friends to bounce-off the difficulties you had.  There is no one right answer.  We each view a story from our own perspectives and experience.  And often when we are busy in work and life and looking to "escape" into a novel, that is the time we crave something easy or simple. 

With a book such as Cloud Atlas, some re-reading is inevitable. The narrator leaves a trail of crumbs in the form of recurring imagery and themes; a similar tatoo on characters in each story whom he wishes the reader to associate qualities and motives; the recurring theme of greed, man's struggle for and against progress, the need to dominate and conquer, etc. I sensed the flavor of Typee, Melville's semi-autobiographical story of a boy who escapes his whaling vessel to explore a polynesian island, and was pleased to learn later that indeed the author had been influenced by that book which left its mark in the sixth novlette, Sloosha's Crossin'.  

The whole thing can be a bit challenging, but that is what book group is all about: figuring it out together.

How Oprah Handles It

Oprah has enlisted a whole team of literary scholars to help her decipher Faulkner, (an author renowned for obfiscating his reader) for her half-million, world-wide book group.  Explanations such as, "the italicized paragraphs can be internal thoughts and monologes or flash-backs," and "the story tells about the central character, the little girl, from the perspective of each of her three brothers in successive chapters, so you hear the story over and over," and "Faulkner was one of several modern authors of the time: Proust, Woolf, Joyce who used stream of consciousness and other such techniques to get the reader inside the brain of their protagonists"... I'm paraphrasing, but this is the sort of coaxing which helps readers attach themselves to difficult novels, (novels they may have hated in high school or college when first approached by teachers whose focus was getting students through a curriculum, and who had not devoted the better part of their lives to understanding and communicating a particular author, in this case Faulkner.)

Reading Statistics

In looking at statistics from professional sources on book publishing it is astounding to read that:

  • 58% of the US adult population never reads a book after high school
  • 42% of college graduates never read another book
  • 80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year
  • 70% of US adults have not been in a book store in the last 5 years
  • 57% of books are not read to completion  (source)

Canadian Statistics were arranged somewhat differently:

  • 61% of Canadians read books
  • 31% a book a week
  • 36% a book a month
  • 17% at least every 3 months
  • 8% a book at least every 6 months
  • 6.2% at least once a year   (source)

The point of this article is not to differentiate between readers and non-readers. It is to attempt to understand and promote a positive, learning, growing experience to book groups. By attempting to determine how best to match, coax and stimulate readers from mainstream bestsellers to the enjoyment of a larger appetite of works, including literary classics and challenging books, with diverse subject matter, style and technique to expand our realm of vicarious experience.  At least that is my goal—to have every group not necessarily like each book we select, but to determine a system for getting in and around it, and not to give-in too easily when the going gets tough. For there-in lies the reward.

How To Match Books With Readers

  1. Choose a book with a subject interesting to the group
  2. Start with linear books and work up to complex structures/language and other elements
  3. Prepare the group with pre-reading notes
  4. Take more than one meeting for a complex book and break it down
  5. Compare and contrast to books already read

Other BookBuffet Moderator Tips

Paula Shackleton is a book group facilitator.  She is currently spearheading a village-wide reading initiative in her home town of Whistler, BC.

Please let us know if you have found this article interesting.  We would love to voice your comments or questions.



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