Theoretically, book clubs, both online and in person, are the ideal place for book lovers to gather. The collective act of sharing a book-reading experience can be creatively inspiring, intellectually stimulating and, sometimes, politically challenging. It is a wonderful thing when the majority of the group loves the book and wants to share their mutual adoration, but dissenting experiences can also lead to a robust and interesting discussion.
The key, however, is to ensure that the discussion starts, flows and remains open-minded and respectful, even when opinions of the text diverge. And if you are the host or curator of the book club, this responsibility is yours alone.
Getting the conversation started and sustaining it throughout your meeting is easier with some books than with others, but with a few points of preparation, you can ensure that a vigorous talk is enjoyed by all. Follow these generalized topics for starting, and maintaining, a great discussion about any book:
A quick “So, did we like the book?” is fine as a way to call the meeting to order, so to speak, but the only answer necessary is a nod, shake of the head or quick poll around the room. Then move on to more invigorating opening questions. Try these:
- Did everybody finish the book? If not, was it a time constraint, or did the reader ditch it? Why?
- Was the book what you expected before you began reading? How/in what ways were you surprised?”
Talk about Plot:
Pacing, central conflict, plausibility, resolution: there’s lots to talk about when we talk about plot.
- How did the story make you feel? Did it make readers anxious, annoyed, happy? Why?
- Do you think the storyline was believable? What made it so? Where did it veer off?
- Were all the plot points necessary? How was the action? Too much, too little or Goldilocks-levels of just right?
Talk about Theme:
Did you make notes as you were reading? Flagging noteworthy passages that you can refer back to means that you’ll always have an example to cite in your discussion.
- How do you think the author handled [theme 1/2/3]? What are the greater implications to the character’s POV?
- How do the themes in the book relate to real life? Is art imitating life?
- Would you have made the same choices [the character made]? A great book asks something of the reader. Now’s the time to discuss what that is.
Talk about Characters:
Talking about the “who” of the story can lead to very complex discussions. A character’s central makeup can be flawed or fascinating or both. Everybody should have something to say here.
- Who was the most interesting character? Were they likable? Despicable? An antihero? An underdog?
- Did the character(s) grow in a realistic way? What did that evolution look like?
- How did the relationships between characters work for you? Were they dysfunctional? Codependent? Harmonious? A personal goal?
- Did you believe the characters’ motivations for their actions? Did they stay true to how the character was initially presented?
Talk about Style:
Once you’ve exhausted the discussion about the story, look at the style of the book: the writing, the voice, the possible gimmicks and the way it all came together.
- Did the author use any stylistic tricks to keep the story interesting? Did they work? Did they distract?
- Was the voice consistent throughout the story? Was the story in the first, second or third person? Did it work?
- What did you think of the language the author used? Was it poetic? Sparse? Was there enough dialogue? Too much dialogue?
Close the Conversation:
By now, the wine has been drunk, the cheese plate is empty and even the most interesting conversation has to come to an end. Try these discussion points to bring your meeting to a close:
- Did the story end where you think it “should” have? Was it too short? Too long? Were there too many loose ends, or was it beautifully ambivalent?
- What are the questions you were left with at the end of the story? Were there any philosophical or moral implications to think about?
- Will you recommend this book to others? Why or why not?
And of course, the most important question:
What are we reading next?
Do you have any tips for keeping the conversation flowing at book club? Let us know in the comments!