Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Reading Guides for Book Clubs—To Use or Not to Use

But book clubs were lonely, left to discuss books on their own. And they would go astray. So Publishers said, “It is not good for clubs to be all alone”…and in their wisdom they gave clubs the Reading Guide.

Today, the reading guide - with its 15 or so book discussion questions - is ubiquitous, or almost. Book clubs have come to depend on them for leading their discussions, while publishers, hoping that clubs choose their titles, are happy to supply them.

Given their importance to book clubs, an important but pretty simple question should be asked: are reading guides really useful?

By “useful” I mean, does the reading guides enrich and inform book club discussions? Do guides provide a good method for getting to the heart of a work of fiction (or nonfiction)? Do they help readers, in this case book club members, come to a deeper understanding of a book?

I believe, after all, that’s the purpose of book clubs. In addition to providing a rich social venue, clubs also offer an opportunity to explore ideas that lie behind the books its members read. The premise here - on which is based my long held philosophy as an English teacher - is that the pleasure of literature increases with understanding.

So do reading guides help readers understand a book? The answer is, yes and no.

Am I alone in thinking that some of the discussion questions come across like nasty pop quizzes?

They are so precise and detailed that even a professor would have trouble answering them?

Here’s a sample just to give you an idea (names are changed to protect the innocent…and to avoid copyright infringement):

”How do the geography and character of Plottsville, mold and shape the lives of it’s residents. What does Sally mean when she says that Plotsville was “chastened” (p.55)? How does the fact that Plottsville is “shallow-rooted” (p.112) and a “meager and difficult place” (p.114), affect Sally and her family?”

That’s exactly the kind of question that, when I taught, I would have asked my students on a test or even essay assignment. But we’re talking about book clubs here! I read this book myself, but I’m not sure that, without a lot of effort, I can answer the question! ”Here’s another:

“How does Sam’s relationship with Barbara Donaldson, Ashley Brown’s sister, complicate Van Baker’s decision to seek legal damages from Ashley?”

What…? Now, of course, I’m making fun. And to be sure, I’ve written my own share of convoluted questions.

In all honesty, though, those two examples are actually pretty good questions, and I’ll talk about why in a moment. But the problem with them is that they are too narrowly focused and too precisely analytical to generate a lively book club discussion.

Perhaps it’s simply the way in which many of the questions are written. If they took a broader approach, talking in more general terms about characters and their conflicts or how things like setting affect events, book club members would have more room to express and work out their own ideas.

When it comes to discussions, book members think and talk spontaneously, from the gut (or heart). Their conversations tend to be wide-ranging and personal. It is their experience as readers with a book that leads to some of the best discussions. Is a particular character compelling and why? In what way do characters reflect members’ own values and life choices?

That’s the line of inquiry pursued by generic book questions, many of which can be found on the web. Because they tend to be broader based, generic questions are often able to inspire livelier discussions than their precision-directed cousins - the question issued by publishers. Generic questions allow for more flexibility.

But this is not to say that reading guides have no value. On the contrary. The questions by publishers can point an individual reader to aspects of the book that have significance to its central ideas - to specific passages and episodes that carry deeper meanings.

Make no mistake about it: reading guides are wonderful tools. And when properly used, can help readers come to a deeper understanding of a novel. That in itself can only lead to a better book club discussion for everyone.

by Molly Lundquist