9/4/13 – DISCUSSABILITY: THE KEY TO A GOOD BOOK CLUB BOOK
Book clubs are often maligned as places where people do just about everything except discuss books. But when I asked members of my own book club for reading recommendations, they confirmed what I had always suspected: book clubs not only discuss books, but “discussability” trumps literary merit.
To be fair, most people who stick with a book club for over a decade – which is the case for most of us – love books, literature, and, yes, good writing. When I asked this club for book recommendations, many waxed prolific about personal favorites that moved or impressed them with gorgeous prose or depth of character.
In terms of what worked as a “book club book,” however, they agreed that if a book doesn’t spur a lively conversation, it’s a loser, no matter how lovely the writing.
Controversy Trump Readability
“The thing that is funny about books and book club…is that it is not always the good reads make for a really good discussion,” said Patience, one of the club’s founding members. “The best discussions I recall are sometimes by books that are not what one would consider the best literary pieces.” Her examples include The Da Vinci Code, Kaffir Boy, and The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, none of which she personally considered “great writing,” but all of which provided hours of lively discussion and ranked among the club’s favorite books.
Kim agreed, noting that degree of conversation depends less on the quality of the book’s writing than on “unexpected twists that come out through conflicts” in our discussions. One person might share a perspective that varies from the expected review or general thought, she said, and that by itself might provoke a conversation. “A book club’s varied members’ experiences can make for these amazing insights that no individual would have ever thought of….We end up enjoying the discussion if not the book.”
“I enjoy the book club because all the different opinions…make me think harder about the book,” agreed Dee. “Sometimes the discussion is about something I’ve never even thought of!”
Discussable books are not even necessarily the ones people enjoyed reading. As Leslie observed, “Few books that we have read have been universally liked by all, and the best discussions came from the less popular selections.”
Some of the best written books lead discussions to lag because everyone “loves the same parts” and “dittos” each other, Patience added.
Sometimes, of course, literary merit and discussability go hand-in-hand. Patience cited both Louise Erdrich‘s The Round House and Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers as books she not only considered personal favorites but that also generated great discussions. “The writing was good,” she said, “and the plot gave one a lot to consider.”
Although a book that sparks personal reflection about the setting, theme, and/or characters is almost always a sure-fire formula for discussion, just what makes this happen is going vary from club to club.”A lot of times it depends on who is in your book club, and what experiences you bring in to the table,” said Patience.
Janice agreed, noting that every book club has its own “dynamic.” As a result, the type of book that touches people enough to get them talking can vary from group to group.
In our club, books about foreign countries and cultures, historical periods, or lifestyle often evoke a variety of personal reflections and related conversation.
“I love travel, but am not as well traveled as I would like and therefore have very much appreciated reading books which depict lifestyles/history of different cultures while tackling themes that are universal, regardless of culture,” said Dawn. She cited Kaffir Boy, The Namesake, The God of Small Things, Wild Swans, and Angela’s Ashes, as well as all of Khaled Houseini’s novels, as sources of great discussions along these lines.
Dawn noted that although she reads a fair amount for her profession, she also enjoys learning something from the books she reads for pleasure. In the context of the book club, learning, and having a chance to explore new topics, helped her “’justify’ finding time again to read for pleasure in the midst of a busy lifestyle of raising children and working full time.”
Many members also commented that they often end up most enjoying the books they would probably never have read on their own.
Dee, for example, particularly enjoyed Behind the Beautiful Forevers because it was about a country she would not normally visit and The Round House because it covered a time period with which she was relatively unfamiliar. Another club member mentioned Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, as a book she would normally never have picked up because it wasn’t a novel, but ended up enjoying because it turned out to cover “some common sense issues” about “nature/nurture and life opportunities” that she had thought about but never put together.
Even the act of being forced to read something out of personal comfort zones can make a book club book appealing.
“I would not have even found some of these books and usually started reading them [only] because someone in book club recommended it,” noted Kim.
This has certainly been true for me. Because of book club discussions, I’ve not only explored some wonderful books that I would never have considered so deeply on my own, but, through “peer pressure” have ended up discovering some marvelous books that I otherwise would have overlooked or even actively shunned.