By Neil Hollands
Most people feel inadequate when they first join a book group. After all, the number of books you've read has very little bearing on how well you're able to talk about them. The following tips will help you show grace under fire and become an invaluable member of your book club.
Read the Book and Show up to Meetings
I know this seems obvious, but if you make the commitment to join a book club, find time for the reading and the meetings. People will notice if you consistently fail to finish the book or don't show up. Once they do, it might not matter how brilliant your insights are, since they naturally will pay you less attention. If you can't finish a book, it's very important not to make a fuss. Don't go on about everything that kept you from your reading or ask others to limit their discussion to avoid spoilers. They made sacrifices to read the book, so don’t expect sympathy if you didn’t. Contribute what you can and try to finish next time.
Do Your Homework
Background information always helps discussion. Look up the author’s biography or bibliography online. Read a review or two. If the title is older, find out which other authors were popular at the time. Better yet, print these materials and bring them to the group to pass around. If you find a biography of the author with pictures, or a deluxe edition of the book, bring them along to share. How about pictures of the book’s setting? Or a related (or surprising) work by the same author? All of these will add depth and fun to your group’s discussion and help make you a popular member.
Create Talking Points
Like many readers, I’m a quiet person and can get tongue-tied in a social setting. If you're like me, you might find it pays to prepare a few commentsáin advance of your next meeting. I’ve known some folks who even read their comments from a piece of paper. Most groups will be accepting and even appreciative if such comments are brief and well composed. Unless you’re an awful public speaker, though, it isn’t necessary to go that far simply note three aspects of the book you would like to discuss, then find the appropriate moments during the meeting to bring them up. With a little practice and forethought, you’ll find you can make better comments in the moment.
Be Confident but Humble
It’s understandable that you don’t want to come off as a know-it-all, but ‘ve seen many book-group participants take this to the opposite extreme, trying so hard to appear modest or self-effacing they practically erase themselves from the group. If you have the urge to apologize before each remark, to qualify every comment, or to constantly defer to other, “wiser” readers, swallow the self-effacement and just make your point. On the other hand, too-strong opinions can put other readers in an uncomfortable position. You might have hated the book, but to say so categorically isn’t likely to move the discussion forward. Similarly, unqualified praise leaves others with no role to play but that of wet blanket. Be specific and measured instead.
Stay on Topic
Book-group discussion is all about momentum, and nothing will make you unpopular faster than being the person who consistently throws the discussion off the rails. DonÆt be so anxious to make your own points that you cut off others. Yes, the book might remind you of one of your favorite stories. Yes, someone else’s comment might have been the perfect setup for a joke. But don’t say every word that pops into your head. Instead, think about whether your comment is tangential or will leave others with nothing to say in reply.
Enthusiasm wears thin fast when half a dozen people blandly repeat that a book is “good” or “well-written.” Dig deeper. Talk about how the author handled conflict, or characters, or setting. Talk about pacing, or what you found suspenseful. Consider what you would do if faced with the dilemmas the characters faced. Note which sections you found believable and which you did not. Search for the author’s life experience in the book’s events.
Sometimes we get so excited to offer our next brilliant comment that we fail to listen. We change subjects prematurely or cut others off. You’ll make better conversation and better friends if you ask follow-up questions (particularly if someone’s point is good but not fully explained), provide examples for generalizations, or try rephrasing their comments. Book groups are a team sport, and often the most valuable player is the one who makes everyone else look good.
Neil Hollands is an adult services librarian, specializing in readers' advisory, at Williamsburg Regional Library (VA).