By Kaite Stover
There's a question I always ask whenever I visit a book club: "What's the best book you've ever discussed?"
This is a surefire way to start a lively discussion, one that always begins with the books the group has enjoyed and inevitably transitions to those they haven't. Eventually, the group will conclude that the best books are those they never would have chosen for themselves. And as soon I hear a member say some variation of "This isn't a book I would have found on my own — I'm so glad I read it," I know I've found a title†I can recommend without hesitation.
After I've read a new title, I task myself with answering the following five questions before I present it as a potential book club selection:
- What's this book about? What's it really about? I come up with a quick plot summary that includes the larger issues and themes the story addresses.
- Which character changes the most? Why did he or she change, and what did she do to achieve that change?
- What motivates this character? Did the author present her motivations in a way a reader can understand?
- Does the story's time and place impact the way the characters behave? How does this setting affect their values and beliefs?
- How does the book end? Is the ending satisfying? (Note: a satisfying ending is not the same as a happy one.) Did the author leave any loose ends? Did she do so deliberately? What do any lingering questions tell the reader about the characters or the author's intentions?
If—and only if—my answers to these questions confirm a book's suitability for sustained discussion, it goes on the list. But self-reflection and polling book groups aren't the only ways to find titles that will provoke thoughtful conversation. Literary prizes, reading group guides, and web resources are just some of the myriad ways to find a great book. Here are some road-tested places where you can find titles sure to vanquish any future dull discussions.
Check out these websites where librarians who advise book club readers and leaders turn when they need potential titles.
Booklist Online & The Booklist Reader
Booklist, a review journal published by the American Library Association, offers more than 180,000 book reviews on its website, as well as top 10 lists, author interviews, and much, much more. Its companion blog, The Booklist Reader, offers a vast variety of supplemental materials, from themed lists and author Q&As to book-club advice and reviews tied to the news of the day.
Wondering which books are trending in book groups? Goodreads has a page devoted to that. Some people love the users reviews on this site and others hate them, but there's no denying they provide a valuable snapshot of readers' response to†a mind-boggling array of titles.
The Indie Next List†compiles the books independent booksellers are most excited about. The IndieNext Top Ten Reading Group Suggestions offers a great mix of nonfiction, essays, short stories, and poetry.
This site provides an incredibly useful list, chosen by public librarians across the country, of the top-ten books published in a given month—great for book groups drawn to contemporary, popular selections.
Created by a former college English instructor with experience in speech writing and public relations, this site provides excellent resources for new book group readers and leaders. Don't skip the LitFood page if your book club likes to eat. (And seriously, whose book club doesn't?)
Reading Group Choices
Established in 1994 as a partnership between publishers, independent booksellers, libraries, and authors, this site's section on favorite books is sure to inspire those starting a new group.
Reading Group Guides
Since 2000 ReadingGroupGuides.com has been the go-to website for book groups and features more than 4,350 discussion guides, contests, a “What’s Your Book Group Reading” feature, advice and ideas on starting and sustaining a group, reading suggestions, as well as newsletters and blogs on topics of interest to book groups. Content is updated twice a month.
The American Library Associations many awards, honors, and lists provide a rich hunting ground for book groups. Winning, short-listed, and nominated titles for the following awards—both ALA and non-ALA—are particularly useful.
Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction
Since its establishment in 2012, the Carnegie medalists and finalists have been meaty books with layered characters, complex plots, and relevant themes.
Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards
This prestigious prize, established in 2015, will alert travelogue lovers to many worthy titles.
National Book Awards
Perhaps the most prestigious U.S. book awards; the National Book Foundation's archives offer a great place to find hotly debated fiction and accomplished narrative nonfiction about a variety of intriguing subjects.
PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction
This is perhaps my favorite book award of all. Founded by Barbara Kingsolver, the Bellwether Prize goes to a manuscript of literary merit that addresses a social issue. Each title prompts a thoughtful examination of a timely societal concern.
PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Well Award for Biography
Biography lovers, this one's for you!
The Royal Society Science Book Prize
This is the only major international prize given to popular science writing. Be sure to check out the Young People's Book Prize, too.
Kaite Stover is the Director of Readers Services for Kansas City Public Library. To date, she provides book club support to 60 book groups in the Kansas City area. If you need more, find fun facts here.