Book Discussion Groups
“A book discussion group is a forum where readers can come together and talk about books and the reading experience. These groups can be organized in a variety of ways. There are adult groups, student-led groups, mother-daughter groups, father-son groups, and parent-child groups, to name just a few. At my library we have a parent-child book discussion group, but the guidelines found in this article can apply to any group with children as participants.”
-- “Giving Readers a Voice: Book Discussion Groups,” by Anna Healy. Book Links: February/March 2002 (v.11, no.4)
Many libraries provide meeting space for book clubs or administer one or more book discussion group. This page provides general information about book groups, starting with "one book" programs, some resources for guiding book groups, references for specific types of book groups, and an anonymously contributed guide to establishing and running a book discussion group.
Most book groups have a rotating selection of books. However, a number of cities, schools, churches, organizations, and even conferences have used the "One Book" model as a start for discussing books. Extensive resources for such programming is available from the Library of Congress Center for the Book and the American Library Association Public Programs Office.
- Ann Healy, "Giving Readers a Voice: Book Discussion Groups." Book Links: February/March 2002 (v.11, no.4). (Accessed September 9, 2013)
- Elizabeth Michaelson Monaghan. "One Book, Well Done." Library Journal, September 1, 2014, p. 30-32.
- Beth Dempsey, "One Great Idea: Why Your Library Should Get on the One Book, One Community Bandwagon." Library Journal, September 1, 2009, p. 19-22.
- Pamela C. Jewett, Jennifer L. Wilson, and Michelle A. Vanderburg. "The Unifying Power of a Whole-School Read." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Vol. 54, no. 6, March 2011., p. 415-424.
- A post on Book Group Buzz listed some of the books selected by communities for the 2010 "one book" program. (Accessed August 30, 2013)
- One Book, One College : Common Reading Programs maintained by Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus. (Accessed August 30, 2013)
- Great Books Foundation
- Library of Congress Center for the Book
- National Reading Group Month Celebrated in October, with the resources available year-round.
Adrianopoli, Barbara. Senior Book Discussion Groups, OLOS Columns, March 10, 2010. (Accessed August 30, 2013)
Dempsey, Beth. "The Evolving Book Group." Library Journal, Sept. 1, 2011, p. 24-26.
Munley, Lisa. Book Club Tips for Author Chats Blogpost, Books on the Brain, January 17, 2008.(Accessed August 30, 2013)
Pearl, Nancy. "Check in Out with Nancy Pearl: Guidelines for Book Groups." Publishers Weekly, January 14, 2013, p. 20-21. (Accessed August 30, 2013)
Selected Print Resources
Note: Additional resources may be found in the Book Discussion Groups list in OCLC's WorldCat.
- Contarino, Ann-Marie. "Establishing a Parish Book Discussion Group" Catholic Library World, March 2008, p. 203-206. With supplemental materials on The Book Thief, p. 207-210.
- Dickerson, Constance B.Teen Book Discussion Groups @ the library. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2004.
- Dodson, Shireen. The Mother-Daughter Book Club. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
- Fineman, Marcia. Talking About Books: A Step-By-Step Guide for Participating in a Book Discussion Group. Rockville, MD: Talking About Books, 1997.
- Gelman, Judy and Vicki Levy Krupp. The Kids' Book Club Book: Reading Ideas, Recipes, Activities, and Smart Tips for Organizing Terrific Kids' Book Clubs, New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2007.
- Jacobsohn, Rachel W.The Reading Group Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Start Your Own Book Club. New York: Hyperion, 1998.
- John, Lauren Z. Running Book Discussion Groups: A How-to-Do-It Manual. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2006.
- Laskin, David and Holly Hughes. The Reading Group Book: The Complete Guide to Starting and Sustaining a Reading Group. New York: Plume, 1995.
- Littlejohn, Carol. Book Clubbing! Successful Book Clubs for Young People. Santa Barbara, Calif: Linworth, 2011.
- McMahon, Susan I. and Taffy Raphael. The Book Club Connection: Literacy, Learning and Classroom Talk. New York: Teachers College Press, 1997.
- Moore, Ellen and Kira Stevens. Good Books Lately: the One-stop Resource for Book Groups and Other Greedy Readers. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2004.
- Saal, Rollene. The New York Public Library Guide To Reading Groups. New York: Crown Publishers, 1995.
- Slezak, Ellen. The Book Group Book: a Thoughtful Guide to Forming and Enjoying a Stimulating Book Discussion Group. 3rd ed. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2000.
- Soltan, Rita. Reading Raps: a Book Club Guide for Librarians, Kids, and Families. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2006.
Book Group Buzz, part of The Booklist Reader, with entries in such categories as author sites, reading guides, suggestions of good books for book club reads, and news. (Accessed September 22, 2014)
Great Group Reads, selections for National Reading Group Month, from the Women's National Book Association, with links to Booklist Online reviews (Accessed September 22, 2014)
LitLovers - Book Club resources with reading guides, suggestions for titles, tips for running groups. (Accessed September 22, 2014)
- Reader’s Circle - Directory of local book groups (Accessed September 22, 2014)
- The Reading Club (A British site) (Accessed September 22, 2014)
- Reading Group Choices Click on "Advide & Tips" (in the footer) for an excerpt from Rachel Jacobsohn’s The Reading Group Handbook: “Ten Tips for Starting and Running a Successful Book Club" (Both accessed September 22, 2014)
- Reading Group Guides - Part of The Bookreporter with notices of new books (Both accessed September 22, 2014)
- Additional information on book clubs in general, libraries with book clubs, and library circulating collections called "book club in a bag" or gab bags using collected Delicious tags.
How to Start a Book Discussion Group: Answer 10 questions and you're on your way!
- What kind of book club? Decide on a club orientation: somewhere between highly social and seriously academic.
- What kind of books? Choose a literary genre or a mix of genres: fiction (current or classic), poetry, drama, mystery, sci-fi, current events, history, or biography.
- How many members? 8 to 16 members are best: enough for a discussion if several are absent, but not too many to make discussions unwieldy.
- How often should we meet? Once a month works best for most clubs. Some meet every 6 weeks. Pick a schedule and try to stick with it.
- When should we meet? Weekdays: mid-morning, lunchtime, dinner, evening—depends on jobs, childcare, family dinners or difficulty driving at night. Weekends: Saturday morning, or Sunday afternoon or evening.
- Where should we meet? Homes, clubhouses, public libraries, churches, local Y’s, restaurants—all make good meeting places.
- What should we call ourselves? Give your club an identity — Brookville Book Babes, Reading's Red Hat Readers, New London Literary Lions. Or simply the Lakewood Book Club — that works.
- How do we keep in touch? Send out monthly meeting reminders. If not everyone uses email, mail postcards. Distribute a complete list of phone numbers, home addresses, and e-mails.
- Keeping memories. Keep a club journal—a 3-ring binder to keep track of the books you’ve read, plot summaries, discussion highlights, and members’ opinions. It's especially useful to bring new members up to speed.
- Give back to the community. Collect dues for a scholarship or an annual literacy award at a local school. Purchase books for your local library, or become involved in a tutoring program.
How to Structure a Meeting
Basic Ground Rules
- Members who haven’t read the book. Come anyway. Not everyone can finish every book, but non-readers may still have valuable insights.
- Disagreements about the book. Be gracious! There is no one way to experience or interpret a book. In fact, differing opinions are good.
- Members who prefer to socialize. Be gentle but firm. Insist that discussion time be limited to the book. Some clubs hold book discussions first and invite "social members" to join afterward.
- Dominating personalities. Never easy. “Let’s hear from some others” is one approach. Some clubs pass an object around the room; you talk only when you hold the object. If the person continues to dominate, a friendly phone call (no e-mail) might work. If all fails, well...sometimes they've just got to go—for the good of the club.
- Allow 2 to 2-1/2 hours per meeting
- 30-45 min. — social time
- 15-20 min. — club administrative matters
- 60-90 min. — book discussion
- Establish a format. Find what works for everyone and stick with it.
Holding the Discussion
- With a leader
- Appoint a club member—whoever selected the book or the person who is hosting. Some clubs have one member who enjoys leading all discussions.
- Invite an outside facilitator (English teacher or librarian), paid or unpaid.
- Without a leader
- Take turns going around the room, allowing each member to talk about his or her experience reading the book.
- Hand out index cards. Ask everyone to write a question or observation; then select one or more to discuss.
How to Select Books
Some Do's & Don'ts
- Don't read favorites. Reading a book someone "just loves" can lead to hurt feelings—like inviting people into your living room to critique your decor. Ouch. Best to stay on neutral territory.
- Do mix genres. A steady diet of one thing can be dull, dull, dull. Try interspersing fiction—current and classic—with nonfiction: poetry, history, or biography.
- Do explore themes. Focus on a specific author, travel journals, childhood memoirs, books on food, or a literary issue (family, loss, working of fate). Don't do it for the whole year (see #2 above), maybe just 3 or 4 months.
- Don't choose for the whole year. It ties you into a rigid year-long schedule with no flexibility to add exciting new works you might learn about. And it's unfair for those who miss that one meeting.
- Do choose 2 or 3 at a time. This allows members to read at their own pace. It's especially helpful for those who travel or miss a meeting or two.
Ways to Select
- Vote -- All members make suggestions, followed by an open discussion, and vote.
- Rotate -- Members take turns, each choosing a book for a given month.
Finding Book Ideas
- Book Club Resources on the Web (listed above)
- Daily & weekly periodicals - The New York Times Book Review (every Sunday) is the biggie. But other periodicals review books, too: many local newspapers, USA Today, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News, People, Vanity Fair, to name some. My favorite is Bookmarks Magazine. Your library should carry it; if not, ask them to. Or pony up for your own subscription.
- Libraries and bookstores - Check out your public library, local bookstores, and national book chains. Most carry their own recommended book lists or lists of what other clubs are reading.
- Top 100 Lists - At the close of the 20th century, collections of "best works" were issued. These are lists of the great classics. Who's on what list and who's not has been the subject of much debate. Try these links:
- BBC: The Big Read-Top 100 (2003; Accessed January 31, 2013)
- The Guardian: The Top 100 Books of All Time (2002; Accessed January 31, 2013)
- Harvard Book Store: Top 100 Books (2010; Accessed January 31, 2013)
- Modern Library: 100 Best Nonfiction (1999; Accessed January 31, 2013)
- Modern Library: 100 Best Novels (1998; Accessed January 31, 2013)
- Radcliffe Publishing Course selection of the top 20th century novels (1998;
- Top 100 (1998; Accessed January 31, 2013) Has explanation of how and why the Modern Library lists were developed.
and if 100 isn't enough, try 1001, either in simple list form or in the published book, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, edited by Peter Boxall, a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Sussex (New York: Universe Publishing, ©2006).
- ALA Public Programs Office: Book and Media Programs
The ALA Public Programs Office has long been at the forefront of library discussion programs. In 1982, ALA launched the first national book discussion series, “Let’s Talk About It.” Since then, the range of discussion programs developed and presented by the ALA Public Programs Office has included film and audio discussion series, family reading, discussion and storytelling series, theme-based book discussion series, a radio program/reading discussion program, and more.
How to Hold a Book Discussion
If you're leading a book discussion
- Choose one question at a time and toss it out to the group. (See Generic Discussion Questions below.)
- Select a number of questions, write each on an index card, and pass them out. Each member (or a team of 2 or 3) takes a card and answers the question.
- Use a prop ( or object) related to the story. It can help stimulate members' thinking about some aspect of the story. It's adult show & tell!
- •maps, photographs, paintings, food, apparel, a music recording, a film sequence
- Pick out a specific passage from the book description, an idea, a line of dialogue—and ask members to comment on it.
- How does the passage reflect a character...or the work's central meaning...or members' lives or personal beliefs?
- Choose a primary character and ask members to comment on him or her. Consider:
- character traits, motivations, how he/she affects the story's events and characters.
- Play a literary game. Use an icebreaker activity to loosen you up and get your discussion off to an enthusiastic start.
- Distribute hand-outs to everyone in order to refresh memories or use as talking points. Identify the primary characters and summarize the plot.
If you're taking part in a book discussion
- Avoid "like" or “dislike.” Those terms aren't very helpful for moving discussions forward, and they can make others feel defensive. Instead, talk about your experience, how you felt as you read the book.
- Support your views. Use specific passages from the book as evidence for your ideas. This is a literary analysis technique called “close reading.”
- Take notes as you read. Jot down particularly interesting passages: something that strikes you or, maybe, that you don't understand. Take your notes to the meeting.
Book Discussion Questions (Generic)
Review of sources of questions for specific books, including tips for web searching.
- How did you experience the book? Were you immediately drawn into the story--or did it take you a while? Did the book intrigue, amuse, disturb, alienate, irritate, or frighten you?
- Do you find the characters convincing? Are they believable? Compelling? Are they fully developed as complex, emotional human beings--or are they one-dimensional?
- Which characters do you particularly admire or dislike? What are their primary characteristics?
- What motivates a given character’s actions? Do you think those actions are justified or ethical?
- Do any characters grow or change during the course of the novel? If so, in what way?
- Who in this book would you most like to meet? What would you ask—or say?
- If you could insert yourself as a character in the book, what role would you play? You might be a new character or take the place of an existing one.
- Is the plot well-developed? Is it believable? Do you feel manipulated along the way, or do plot events unfold naturally, organically?
- Is the story plot or character driven? In other words, do events unfold quickly? Or is more time spent developing characters' inner lives? Does it make a difference to your enjoyment?
- Consider the ending. Did you expect it or were you surprised? Was it manipulative? Was it forced? Was it neatly wrapped up--too neatly? Or was the story unresolved, ending on an ambiguous note?
- If you could rewrite the ending, would you? In other words, did you find the ending satisfying? Why or why not.
- Can you pick out a passage that strikes you as particularly profound or interesting--or perhaps something that sums up the central dilemma of the book?
- Does the book remind you of your own life? An event or situation? A person--a friend, family member, boss, co-worker?
- If you were to talk with the author, what would you want to know? (Many authors enjoy talking with book clubs. Contact the publisher to see if you can set up a phone chat.)
- Have you read the author’s other books? Can you discern a similarity—in theme, writing style, structure—between them? Or are they completely different?
- If your book is a cultural portrait --of life in another country, or different region of your own country--start with these questions first:
- What does the author celebrate or criticize in the culture? Consider family traditions, economic and political structures, the arts, language, food, religious beliefs.
- Does the author wish to preserve or reform the culture? If reform, what and how? Either way—by instigating change or by maintaining the status quo—what would be gained or what would be at risk?
- How does the culture differ from yours? What was most surprising, intriguing, difficult to understand? After reading the book, have you gained a new perspective—or did the book affirm your prior views?
- Does the book offer a central idea or premise? What are the problems or issues raised? Are they personal, spiritual, societal, global, political, economic, medical, scentific?
- Do the issues affect your life? How so—directly, on a daily basis, or more generally? Now or sometime in the future?
- What evidence does the author give to support the book's ideas? Does he/she use personal observations and assessments? Facts? Statistics? Opinions? Historical documents? Scientific research? Quotations from authorities?
- Is the evidence convincing? Is it relevant or logical? Does it come from authoritative sources? (Is the author an authority?) Is the evidence speculative...how speculative?
- Some authors make assertions, only to walk away from them—without offering explanations. It's maddening. Does the author use such unsupported claims?
- What kind of language does the author use? Is it objective and dispassionate? Or passionate and earnest? Is it polemical, inflammatory, sarcastic? Does the language help or undercut the author's premise?
- Does the author—or can you—draw implications for the future? Are there long- or short-term consequences to the problems or issues raised in the book? If so, are they positive or negative? Affirming or frightening?
- Does the author—or can you—offer solutions to the problems or issues raised in the book? Who would implement those solutions? How probable is success?
- Does the author make a call to action to readers—individually or collectively? Is that call realistic? Idealistic?Achievable? Would readers be able to affect the desired outcome?
- Are the book's issues controversial? How so? And who is aligned on which sides of the issues? Where do you fall in that line-up?
- Can you point to specific passages that struck you personally—as interesting, profound, silly or shallow, incomprehensible, illuminating?
- Did you learn something new reading this book? Did it broaden your perspective about a difficult personal issue? Or a societal issue? About another culture in another country... or about an ethnic / regional culture in your own country?
Book groups have their origins in 18th century Parisian salons and 19th century Victorian parlors. In The Book Group Book: A Thoughtful Guide to Forming and Enjoying a Stimulating Book Discussion Group (Chicago, Ill: Chicago Review Press, 1993), Ellen Slezak says in the foreword, “In book groups, like-minded souls gather; what they have in common seems to be that a) they can read, b) they like to read, and c) they like to talk about what they have read.” Helen Hooven Santmyer's "... And Ladies of the Club". (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1982) chronicles a 19th century study circle. According to ALA's Brad Hooper, the oldest--and still running--book club as we know them today may be the Mattoon Women's Reading Club, founded in Mattoon, Illinois, in 1877. Book clubs were popularized by Oprah's Book Club, which ran from 1996 to 2011 on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Adams, Dennis. "A Brief History of Book Clubs." Beaufort (SC) County Library Book Club Corner. (Accessed September 22, 2014)
Heller, Nathan. "Book Clubs: Why Do We Love Them So Much? Is It the Zucchini Bread?" Slate. July 29, 2011. (Accessed September 22, 2014)
Hooper, Brad. "Writers & Readers: The Mother of All Book Clubs." Booklist, September 15, 2001.
Updated September 22, 2014