Any­one who has been appoint­ed the leader of their book club knows that it can be a chal­leng­ing job.And any­one who has sat through a book club dis­cus­sion that falls into awk­ward silences, uncom­fort­able inter­ac­tions, or bor­ing exchanges knows just how key a good leader real­ly is to live­ly and engag­ing con­ver­sa­tions. Whether your group leader is a mem­ber of the book club or a pro­fes­sion­al facil­i­ta­tor, the same per­son each meet­ing or a rotat­ing posi­tion, it takes skill and prepa­ra­tion to suc­cess­ful­ly guide a group of read­ers through the twists and turns of a good book dis­cus­sion. How a leader pre­pares for a meet­ing, comes up with ques­tions, includes sup­ple­men­tal sources, runs the actu­al meet­ing itself, and inter­cedes when a top­ic is falling flat can make or break the conversation. 

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

To start off this series of tips for facil­i­ta­tors from facil­i­ta­tors, we asked Sarah Rind­ner, a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture and pro­fes­sion­al book club facil­i­ta­tor for her thoughts and suggestions. 

Our book club is com­prised of about 18 Jew­ish women, most­ly of the baby-boomer gen­er­a­tion, who have been meet­ing once a month for approx­i­mate­ly 11 years. All the par­tic­i­pants live in the same com­mu­ni­ty in New Jer­sey and many have known each oth­er for decades. The par­tic­i­pants take care of the club’s logis­tics such as pay­ing the mod­er­a­tor and bring­ing refresh­ments and leave it to the mod­er­a­tor (me) to run the discussions.

I occa­sion­al­ly offer sug­ges­tions for poten­tial book selec­tions, but for the most part the women choose the nov­els the club will read based on word of mouth rec­om­men­da­tions or book reviews. When con­sid­er­ing books, the club is sen­si­tive to length (book can­di­dates should not be longer than 300 pages, except for those we read over the sum­mer) and also whether the book is com­plex and lit­er­ary” enough to qual­i­fy as a book club book.” The par­tic­i­pants are all avid read­ers even out­side the club, but when choos­ing books to dis­cuss they seek texts that will be chal­leng­ing and yield a reward­ing dis­cus­sion. Often­times huge­ly pop­u­lar best­sellers are reject­ed by the par­tic­i­pants as not being book club” mate­r­i­al, even when they are large­ly mar­ket­ed to book clubs by pub­lish­ers (to cite a Jew­ish” exam­ple, The Dove­keep­ers by Alice Hoff­man did not make the cut).

The club’s meet­ings are con­duct­ed for the most part like col­lege sem­i­nars; I offer some prefa­to­ry remarks, and per­haps a guid­ing ques­tion or two, and we then have a dis­cus­sion. Some­times the dis­cus­sion flows organ­i­cal­ly and some­times I step in to direct the con­ver­sa­tion or point to spe­cif­ic pas­sages in the nov­el. The par­tic­i­pants have been meet­ing for so long that they have a ter­rif­ic rap­port with one anoth­er, so what I try to do is make sure that the con­ver­sa­tion is focused on the text and also point out addi­tion­al themes and poten­tial issues raised by the book that do not come up organ­i­cal­ly in the group dis­cus­sion. I try to have some talk­ing points pre­pared in case there is a lull in the con­ver­sa­tion, but I find that our best dis­cus­sions lead them­selves and I will only need to chime in to offer tex­tu­al chal­lenges or sup­port for the par­tic­i­pants’ the­o­ries. I also answer back­ground or con­text ques­tions as they arise. Some par­tic­i­pants have expressed a pref­er­ence that I take a stronger role in direct­ing the con­ver­sa­tions, but I do not always feel com­fort­able doing this, par­tial­ly because I am not actu­al­ly an expert in any of the nov­els that we read, but also because it real­ly is their group and I want the dis­cus­sion to reflect their con­cerns and inter­ests rather than my own.

My prepa­ra­tion for the meet­ings begins when I first read the book to be dis­cussed. I mark pas­sages that I believe reflect the novel’s major themes or con­cerns, or sim­ply snip­pets of lan­guage that I find par­tic­u­lar­ly beau­ti­ful or worth ana­lyz­ing. After I fin­ish the book I return to the begin­ning to find pas­sages that I may not have thought much of ini­tial­ly, but lat­er real­ized were the­mat­i­cal­ly rel­e­vant. By the­mat­i­cal­ly rel­e­vant” I mean some­thing that reflects one or more of the ideas” that the author has embed­ded in the nov­el. I don’t believe that who­dunit” moments that help us under­stand the plot of the book are wor­thy of too much dis­cus­sion – the women in the group are intel­li­gent and expe­ri­enced read­ers who are gen­er­al­ly attuned to sub­tlest devel­op­ments of the plot (and if a par­tic­i­pant does miss some­thing cru­cial, she will gen­er­al­ly be informed of this by her peers in the ear­li­est moments of the meet­ing.) I try to come to each meet­ing with a rough list of the impor­tant ideas that I have found to be expressed or grap­pled with in the book. I will gen­er­al­ly also include two or three pas­sages that demon­strate those themes, but I can usu­al­ly count on the group mem­bers to sup­ply even more tex­tu­al sup­ports to but­tress these ideas, often ones that I did not notice myself.

I also make sure to research the allu­sions that are made in the book, espe­cial­ly the lit­er­ary allu­sions. This can be time con­sum­ing, but I think the par­tic­i­pants par­tic­u­lar­ly appre­ci­ate hav­ing a mod­er­a­tor who will do this kind of research. Often­times under­stand­ing the allu­sions can unlock many of the themes con­tained with­in the book. When there is a lit­er­ary allu­sion that is par­tic­u­lar­ly cru­cial to an under­stand­ing of the book, or even if it is not cru­cial but I think it could enrich our dis­cus­sion, I will bring in copies of the text or an excerpt from it for at the group to review togeth­er. I once played a musi­cal piece for the group that one author in an inter­view cit­ed as an inspi­ra­tion for the nov­el we were dis­cussing. I would love to at some point share a rel­e­vant work of visu­al art with the group as well if relevant.

My next prepara­to­ry step involves search­ing the inter­net or oth­er resources for infor­ma­tion about the author, but I do not do this to an exces­sive degree. As a rule, I do not want the author’s biog­ra­phy to weigh down upon our read­ing of a nov­el, as it is very easy to make slop­py con­nec­tions between an author’s life and his or her work. Although mak­ing such con­nec­tions is inevitable for any read­er, I find that our con­ver­sa­tions are enhanced when we leave such con­jec­tures aside. In intro­duc­ing the author at the begin­ning of a dis­cus­sion, I don’t list the awards they have received or all the books they have writ­ten. On occa­sion I have said noth­ing at all about the author, as I couldn’t locate any infor­ma­tion that I felt would be rel­e­vant to our dis­cus­sion of the novel.

I spend a lit­tle more time inves­ti­gat­ing the his­tor­i­cal set­ting of the nov­el and try to edu­cate myself about the peri­ods or places depict­ed. There is a gen­er­a­tional dif­fer­ence between me and the par­tic­i­pants, so some of this research involves sim­ply bring­ing myself up to speed on his­tor­i­cal peri­ods the par­tic­i­pants are more famil­iar with such as the Cold War or Viet­nam War periods.

I also review lit­er­ary crit­i­cism that has been writ­ten about the book, usu­al­ly includ­ing recent book reviews since the club almost always reads con­tem­po­rary fic­tion. I quote direct­ly from these reviews when I think they offer a unique insight that is nice­ly word­ed and rel­e­vant to our dis­cus­sion. When there is noth­ing worth quot­ing, I some­times still find it use­ful to cite some­thing as reflect­ing a crit­i­cal con­sen­sus” (e.g., many crit­ics were unim­pressed by Ian McEwan’s por­tray­al of the female mind in Sweet Tooth.”). I don’t cite these reviews in order to offer any­thing like an author­i­ta­tive read­ing of the nov­el, but rather to add some tex­ture to a con­ver­sa­tion by intro­duc­ing anoth­er point of view.

My favorite part of prepa­ra­tion involves read­ing or watch­ing actu­al inter­views with the authors, whether about their craft in gen­er­al or this spe­cif­ic nov­el. One has to be care­ful when shar­ing this infor­ma­tion, since it can poten­tial­ly shut down con­ver­sa­tion; after all, no one is more author­i­ta­tive” with respect to a nov­el than the author him or her­self! How­ev­er, I find that authors are gen­er­al­ly very wise about the infor­ma­tion they share about their books and usu­al­ly have real­ly inter­est­ing things to say about their writ­ing process or the evo­lu­tion of a par­tic­u­lar nov­el that the group enjoys hearing.

Again, I try to arrive at each book club meet­ing armed with a few ques­tions that can enliv­en a con­ver­sa­tion that is falling flat. (To be fair, this doesn’t always work as planned.) Some gen­er­al cat­e­gories of ques­tions that tend to work might include:

1) The ques­tion of whether a par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter has our sym­pa­thies or not (every­one is drawn to char­ac­ter dri­ven ques­tions, so you also have to be care­ful that the dis­cus­sion does not get too caught up in them)

2) Often nov­els are pref­aced with inscrutable epigraphs or quo­ta­tions that pre­sum­ably con­tain some insight into the con­cerns of the nov­el. We will usu­al­ly ask: What is the rela­tion­ship of the open­ing epi­graph to the nov­el itself?

3) Metafic­tion. Is this nov­el say­ing some­thing about nov­els in gen­er­al or about lan­guage or writ­ing? (Hint: it is usu­al­ly say­ing something.)

4) From whose per­spec­tive is the book writ­ten? Do we trust this per­spec­tive or must we ques­tion its authority?

5) Prob­lem pas­sages” or parts of the book that don’t seem to fit in with the whole. Are they mis­takes on the part of the author or do they help us expand our under­stand­ing of what the nov­el is try­ing to do (ide­al­ly the latter…)?

6) Style = Con­tent. How is the style of this book dis­tinct? How is that style unique­ly suit­ed to deal­ing with the novel’s themes?

7) Com­pare and con­trast. Let’s con­struct a fruit­ful com­par­i­son between this nov­el and a nov­el we have read together.

8) Does the end­ing work for you?

Final­ly, lead­ing a book club, like many things in life, is an art and not a sci­ence. A good leader will be attuned to the needs of his or her group, to their inter­ests and intrap­er­son­al dynam­ic. This is hard to do, and often I feel like I fail more than I suc­ceed. But as a rule, if as a mod­er­a­tor you find your­self lec­tur­ing to the group for more than a few min­utes at any point dur­ing the dis­cus­sion, how­ev­er fas­ci­nat­ing you may be, you are prob­a­bly not being ade­quate­ly sen­si­tive to the deep­er inter­ests of the group that is before you. 

Sarah Rind­ner has taught both Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture and Jew­ish Stud­ies in a vari­ety of for­mal and infor­mal con­texts. She cur­rent­ly teach­es Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at Lan­der Col­lege for Women in New York City. She has mod­er­at­ed the par­tic­u­lar book club described above for the past four years. 

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 bookclub@​jewishbooks.​org if you would like to con­tribute to this series.