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JBC Book Clubs Asks: Facilitator Tips on Participation and Staying Focused

Thursday, April 10, 2014| Permalink

JBC Book Clubs is asking: what does it take to lead a book club?**  

We started this series hearing from Sarah Rindner about the extensive research she does before her book club meetings and when the pros and cons of including author interviews in the discussion. For the second post in this series of tips for facilitators from facilitators, we asked Joan Tedlow, a facilitator of three different book groups, for her thoughts and suggestions. 

I have been facilitating two Jewish book clubs for my synagogue, Temple Solel, a large reform congregation located in North County, San Diego, for the past 15 years. Our membership consists of women (no men unfortunately!) ranging in age from their 30’s to late 80’s. Recently, I added a third club at the local Jewish retirement home. 

In my experience, the most important element of maintaining participation is having women buy into the program by actively involving them in the book selection process. Typically I present 20 books: one biography/autobiography/memoir, one novel by an Israeli author, several non-fiction selections and, of course, contemporary Jewish novels. The group selects 10 books that they would like to read/discuss in the coming year. I also solicit suggestions from the groups. 

 In preparation for the discussion, I read the book no more than 6 weeks in advance, so it is fresh in my mind. I research biographical information about the author, much of which I find on his/her website. The author’s life story often sheds light on his/her work. I read reviews, being careful that they are unbiased. For instance, if they are composed by other authors who also write for the same publisher, I tend to take them with a grain of salt. I prefer sources such as Kirkus reviews and the newspapers, particularly The New York Times Sunday Review of Books. 

On to the actual book club meeting! I begin with the author’s bio and then offer a few reviews. Then I go around the room and ask the group to share with us how they liked/disliked the selection, keeping their comments to just a few sentences. This approach encourages ladies who may be shy to participate. Then I throw out the questions, which I have developed and adapted with the help of on-line resources. Most publishers provide discussion questions, although I almost always find I have to tailor them to our group. I always try to have 10 questions, so the discussion doesn’t fall flat. 

The tricky part of facilitating then comes into play. How do we keep our members from straying from the subject? No one is interested in their personal experiences, if they don’t relate to the subject. I must admit that I tend to be a bit of a tyrant. I have no problem in interrupting a speaker, thanking her for her comments and moving on. It’s not fair to allow one woman to monopolize the conversation. It’s hard not to be rigid when you have formulated the questions and want to get through them, but I find that I do have to allow some unstructured conversation, as long as it relates to the book. My groups are terrific; they always have some pithy insights that I miss. 

At the end of the conversation, I always ask if anyone’s opinion of the material has changed due to the discussion. Would they recommend the book to others?

Looking for author interviews, discussion questions or book recommendations? Look to JBC Book Clubs for all of that and more.

**Do you have tips or advice for leading a book club discussion? Tell us! Share in the comments below or email Miri at if you would like to contribute to this series. 

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