Help me help other readers talk about books!
February 9, 2019 6:16 AM   Subscribe

I’ve been asked to lead a bookclub next month at a bookstore. Yay! I’ve belonged to book clubs in the past, but not as a facilitator. The book is fiction, I will of course have read it at least once before we meet, and I’ll have a few prepared questions provided by the publisher available in advance. Treats and coffee will be provided. What do I need to know/do to encourage attendees (who will probably not know each other) to feel comfortable to join in the discussion and hopefully keep participants coming back?
posted by bookmammal to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ask open ended questions. Ask specific questions, too. :7)

If someone is quiet, ask them a direct question or to react to someone else’s answer — but if they demur then leave them alone.

If someone is busting to share a point then they probably aren’t listening, and may even not notice if the conversation leaves them behind.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:43 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]


I've led a few of these. If the publisher's questions are in the book, first I ask people if they have thoughts on any of them. That way if they have studied or prepared, they can share before the conversation gathers too much momentum. Some of the questions included in the last book seemed kind of weird and hard to answer, and we bonded over that. Plus, addressing those questions gets you started on a fairly specific level, and not "OMG I loved/hated this book." But I don't try to go through all the questions.

The meeting that went the best recently-- in terms of people saying they liked it and asking when the next would be-- I allowed to become personal towards the end. I asked people if they'd ever done anything like the main character did, and some of the answers were rather remarkable. But not every book lends itself to that sort of question.

If it's really rough sledding, like if someone is dominating the hour with irrelevant remarks, I ask people if they have passages they liked or I read one short one that I have marked. That way, I hope to get more grounded in the book without turning it into an academic seminar. (I do have to avoid that tendency in myself.)

If there is time left at the end, I ask people what else they have been reading lately. That information is always valuable if you are working in the store or planning events. It also gives me a last chance to have everyone speak.
posted by BibiRose at 6:58 AM on February 9 [4 favorites]


Also, I have found some interesting conversation fodder by looking through interviews with the authors. Sometimes there's an little tidbit, like that the author is very much into music or painting, or that they were born in a different country than they grew up in, that seems to add a dimension to the work once you know it. I try to do just a tiny little bit of that, and quickly bring it back to the book. I don't want people to feel like they should have done research. My sense is that you want to use about one quarter of the information you have. You really don't have time for more.
posted by BibiRose at 7:17 AM on February 9 [3 favorites]


If it's really rough sledding, like if someone is dominating the hour with irrelevant remarks, I ask people if they have passages they liked

Yep, or even dominating with relevant remarks. Some people do like to come to book discussions just to be out in the world and are okay being quieter but sometimes you get people who just like to hear their own voices and may need to be encouraged to share the space (you could even have ground rules ahead of time but that is probably uneccessary). I am a little timid as a facilitator so I thrive when everyone's behaving but I have a harder time when I need to do things that involve telling people they need to share the space. Accordingly, one way to do that is just to have questions like BibiRose says where everyone can contribute, almost a lightning round if you will. Have a few of those, so if you have one person who is like 'That chapter reminded me of my own life where...." you can tighten things up a little. Keep in mind some people may not have read the book, so have a few more general questions as well as some specific ones. And feel okay just ignoring your questions mostly if the discussion is going well on its own.

Also, snacks. Make sure people either feel free to get up and grab them, or know what the situation is. I've been to groups where there are supposedly snacks but then there's no "snack time" or more freeform time when people can eat/drink. I hope it goes well.
posted by jessamyn at 7:34 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]


Read the book closely and think of stuff that is relatable that you can bring up. "When this happened, it reminded me of..." or "When this historical event happened that was mentioned, I remember I first heard about it on the radio..." or "I have to say, that is not how I would have reacted..." People sometimes go to these things more to talk to other humans and get some safe social interaction in than to talk about the book. The book is a starting place.

However, you also need the authority to kick out someone who came to start fights. So I'd suggest going over the ground rules at the top and include something like "The parking lot is a place for ideas that are too far off track for the group. When I tell you I need you to put something in the parking lot, that means you need to drop the subject for now. You can bring it up again after the group is over at (time), or I'll ask you to leave." Go over with management what you will do when someone creates a disturbance. It's unlikely to happen, but it's better to have a plan you can execute smoothly than not.
posted by blnkfrnk at 7:49 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]


I have been a member of a few book clubs. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious asshole, certain types of books (and the people that they invariably attract) will be more conducive to good conversation.

If I were you, I would come with certain open ended questions and let the conversation develop organically. Smart people and smart fiction will open the door for great discussions about the books and themes explored.

As a member, I also used to come with a list of things to talk about. Other members did too. Even though you are the "leader" , other should help with the conversation as well

Good luck!!
posted by kbbbo at 8:12 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]


If at all possible, have a "plant" in the audience who can do two things:

1. Give a prearranged answer to your first question, in case nobody speaks up and you're facing awkward silence. And make it an answer that would naturally segue into another question in order to keep the discussion going.

2. Make a drastic "change-the-subject" conversational gambit in case things go off the rails with a conversation hog or a long-talker. You need to be able to give your audience plant a signal of some sort (brush your hand through your hair, ball up a fist ... something subtle) and s/he will "raise a hand" (literally or figuratively) and you can switch gears to escape an awkward mess and keep things going. Many people in the group will want that to happen, but most won't have the gumption to jump in and do it themselves.

Might turn out that you don't need your "plant" at all, but if things go wrong you'll be awfully glad to have it.
posted by mccxxiii at 8:34 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]


"The parking lot is a place for ideas that are too far off track for the group. When I tell you I need you to put something in the parking lot, that means you need to drop the subject for now. You can bring it up again after the group is over at (time), or I'll ask you to leave."

I strongly believe that a mod has to be prepared to deal with the long-winded person who dominates the conversation, but I'd find an opening statement like this to be very offputting.
posted by praemunire at 8:57 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]


I like sharing insights about books I've read and have been in a few clubs. My main fault with book clubs are people who interrupt frequently and dominate conversations. Usually facilitators don't do anything proactive or reactive about it. I would prefer that it be mentioned....simple guidelines...at the onset. To get people talking you could have printed questions they can choose from. Good luck!
posted by DixieBaby at 4:53 PM on April 2


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