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Be sure that you go to the author to get
at his meaning, not to find yours.
~ John Ruskin ~
Another common quagmire that book clubs can fall into is negativity. Or, closely related, the feeling that the discussion just doesn’t do the book justice. As stated in part one, book clubs are so popular because they take an essentially solitary activity — reading — and turn it into a communal experience. So, as we read a novel, we are intimately connected to the author and to our own reactions. Whether or not we “read ourselves” into a novel, we know that each individual reader is engaged in a unique experience. How many times have we been in the middle of a great read, anxious to discuss our impressions with another!?
For years, I would assign a novel to my A. P. students a month ahead of time, due on a particular Monday. True to form, most would read the entire the novel the weekend before it was due, and then come tumbling into my room speaking over each other, eager to share their opinions. This moment on a Monday morning was always one of favorites, but was also crucial to the success of the rest of the week. If one or two of the extroverts “hated” the work, any decent discussion could soon become derailed. On the other extreme, even if the students adored the novel, they did not always want to “peek behind the curtain” of what made it so wonderful.
As a teacher and moderator, I quickly learned the best way to stifle a thriving discussion was to put up a page of biographical notes on the overhead. Not only would the act of note-taking snuff the voices, but the students then felt compelled to connect every character and decision with the author’s relationship to his/her mother, father, spouse, depression, etc…
So, here is what years of experience has revealed — try to start objectively, then add biography, and finish with subjectivity.
I recommend beginning with the aspect of the novel that has resulted in its status (whether as an established member of the “canon” or the latest, book club darling). Try to discuss this aspect first, if possible. Many times, especially with classics, readers will gain a greater appreciation of a work’s merits and will then be less apt to disregard it. Instead of a cursory “I hated it…,” the response may become, “It wasn’t my favorite read, but I appreciate what the author is doing.” Then, feel free to divulge in the biographical information, and wrap up the discussion with the member’s opinions. I found that this formula resulted in the most interesting, engaging and enlightening discussions — and tended to encourage the most voices, too!