Troubleshoot a Book Club

By Neil Hollands

Is your book club not running smoothly? Does it need a tune-up? In my years of moderating book clubs, I've learned that digression is the most prevalent problem. Interruptions can destroy the flow of discussion, create ill will between readers, and distract the group. Fear not: I've developed effective, tactful ways for book-group leaders to identify the source of interruptions and harness them for good.

Know Your Group

Groups employing themes often welcome digressions; groups reading a common book may be less amenable to wandering. Groups that acknowledge a social purpose to meetings expect time for other subjects, while groups that want serious book talk will frown on interruptions. If your group has never discussed its goals and intentions, and members are pulling in different directions, perhaps it is time for a friendly discussion about your collective expectations.

Go with the Flow

If your group seems reasonably happy, try not to get too worked up about interruptions. Some degree of ebb and flow is unavoidable—and often even desirable. Without it, conversation can become too stiff and formal.

Clarify Your Interests

When the meeting starts, ask each reader to identify one question or topic she would like the group to address. Write them down and make sure each one is discussed before the end of the meeting.

Reevaluate Your Methods

If your group frequently pulls in different directions, they could be dissatisfied with the books they're reading, the discussions that typically occur, or the way the group is run. If you can identify a common theme to interruptions, consider making those themes the focus of your next meeting.

Build in More Social Time

Maybe your group is too excited to talk to one another to fully appreciate the books. Try serving refreshments and chatting for fifteen minutes at the start of each meeting, taking formal breaks, or organizing drinks, dinner, or dessert afterward.

Learn to Signpost

Consider dividing your discussions into major categories of literary analysis such as characters, plot, major themes, pacing, setting, style, and so on. Try to actively declare certain topics open and closed: follow up the first comment on a new subject by saying “X has introduced an interesting topic. Let’s explore that,” and signal an end to the topic by asking “Does anyone have anything else to say on the subject of Y?”

Take the Reins

When an interruption happens, quickly and neutrally steer the conversation back to the interrupted person. “That’s an interesting idea, Y, but I don’t think we got to the bottom of what X said. Can you expand on your point, X?” If X seems flustered, try rephrasing what she or he just said.

Talk It Out

If interruptions are frequent, point that out at the start of your next meeting. Make a simple, impersonal plea for everyone to try hard not to interrupt and take an extra breath before they start to speak. In most groups, this will at least create a temporary reprieve, and when it does, reinforce good behavior by thanking everyone for reducing their interruptions.

Get Formal

If interruptions are a chronic problem, consider a more formal discussion model that prevents them entirely. This might mean passing around an object to clearly identify which speaker has the floor, or it might mean giving each participant five minutes at the start of the meeting to say what he or she wants about the book before any discussion begins. It might even mean raising hands or formally moving through an agenda of questions or topics. This can make things a bit stiff, but when a book group has broken down, it’s better than the alternative.

Neil Hollands is an adult services librarian, specializing in readers' advisory, at Williamsburg Regional Library (VA).

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