Book Group Therapy: A Survey Reveals Some Truths about Why Some Book Groups Work and Others May Need Some Time on the Couch

Barry Trott, Editor
Megan McArdle, Guest Columnist

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Book groups, whether library-sponsored or privately hosted, continue to grow in popularity. Perhaps the opportunity to connect to others face-to-face in what is an increasingly virtual world motivates people to come together to talk about their reading. Or perhaps it is the food. In any case, reader interest in book discussions offers libraries a lot of opportunities to interact with their reading community and is a chance for libraries to reinforce their value to the community, a useful thing in unsettled economic times.

In 2008, the RUSA CODES Readers’ Advisory Committee surveyed book group participants across the country. Among the most interesting of the survey results was the discovery of a common set of problems that book groups seem to face no matter where they are or how long they have been meeting. Here, Megan McArdle explores these ongoing book group issues and offers suggestions that libraries can use when working with their local groups. These suggestions also will be useful for book group members seeking to improve the quality of their book group experience.

Megan McArdle is the Manager for Collection Development and Technical Services at the Berkeley (Calif.) Public Library. Active in ALA and the Public Library Association, she is the past chair of the RUSA’s Readers’ Advisory Committee and is on the Advisory Committee for H.W. Wilson’s Fiction Catalog.—Editor

At the far end of a dimly lit hallway, in a mostly unoccupied office building, there’s a plain, unassuming door with the words “Book Group Therapist” hand-lettered on the glass. As you gingerly open the door and enter the office, a cool-eyed blond with an authoritarian air gestures to the enormous couch that stretches across the far wall of the room. “Ah! You must be my ten o’clock clients. Come in and have a seat.” Your book group dutifully files into the office and jostles for position on the couch, while the therapist slowly looks you over. “In this room I require absolute honesty if we are to get at the root of your group’s dysfunctional issues.” She makes eye contact with each member, pausing over those members fussing with cell phones or furtively looking for the coffee. “Shall we begin? Let’s start by talking about your childhood reading …”

Oh, if only this kind of therapy was a reality for a troubled book group! Whether brand new or long-established, book groups can run into problems. These can range from the benign (a book falls flat) to the group-killing (unpleasant meetings filled with bickering that leave members intimidated and afraid to return). Learning what some of the most commonly occurring problems are with book groups, what some of the most successful books discussed in their groups are, and what members would most like to change about their groups are just some of the useful results that came out of a 2008 survey conducted by the RUSA CODES Readers’ Advisory Committee. A review of the survey findings should help all those working with book groups to get ideas on how to provide some therapy, or at least some therapeutically good reads.

In late 2007, the Readers’ Advisory Committee was planning for a program at the 2008 ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim, California, called “Book Group Therapy: How to Repair, Revamp, and Revitalize Your Book Group.” This program was intended to help librarians who host library book groups or work with community book groups. The committee members had all experienced and heard from our peers that there were some common issues that book groups run into, and we wanted to provide some strategies to help solve these problems. As research for the program we decided to conduct a survey of book groups to try and find out more about what makes them tick. We put together some questions that we found interesting, let it loose on the Web (via the wonderful SurveyMonkey application), told people we thought would be interested (through posts to blogs, discussion lists, and newsletters), and slowly watched the responses come in. We were hoping to learn more about who is in book groups, how they function, and what works well—and not so well—in their book groups. Starting in January 2008, the committee collected data from the survey. We received more than 1,400 responses from book groups all over the country. What we discovered was that a successful book group is like a successful relationship. It requires compromise, humor, and compatibility. Any group of more than two people has the added complication of group dynamics: alliances can be formed, struggles for dominance occur, and sometimes members end up looking around them wondering “what am I doing in a musty library basement with people I don’t know talking about books I don’t even want to read.” To help prevent that moment of terror, let’s look at some of the most commonly reported problems from the 750 respondents who answered the question, “If there was one thing that you would change about your book group, what would it be?”

1. I Wish We Could Discuss This Book!

People join a book discussion group to discuss books, don’t they? More than 10 percent of the people who answered this question complained that their group spent too little time talking about the book and too much time on other things. The other things varied from group to group: maybe it was one member who wants to show home movies of her trip to Italy (even though your book was set in depression-era Kansas), or another who wanted to show off how her pet ferret learned how to use a computer, or maybe it was most of the group who wanted to move on to the chocolate portion of the evening before they got past chapter 1. They key to this problem is that a five-minute book discussion followed by fifty-five minutes of home movies, pet tricks, or face-stuffing does not have to be a bad thing. If everyone in the group is happy with this arrangement, they will never end up on the book therapist’s couch. It is when you have stumbled into a group where you thought you would be sharing insights into themes and characters and you end up talking about recipes and daycare issues that you might need to find a new group. The key to this issue is having a common goal. When starting a new group, consider having a frank discussion about what you all want to get out of the experience. And when joining a group that has been around for awhile, don’t be afraid to bow out if it is not a good fit. If everyone else is looking for a retreat from their daily grind where they can gossip and share a cocktail, but you want an intellectually challenging Socratic debate about literature, they are not the problem—you are. Find a group that is more compatible with your own views of what a book group should be.

2. I Want Some Rules!

A related complaint that manifested itself in many different ways on the survey was that members wanted some established ground rules. We all know that there are people who prefer rules and procedures and get antsy when things are left too loose. It could be as simple a complaint as wanting to have a system for choosing titles or rotating the moderator duties. Or perhaps someone wants to have a rule to ensure that everyone speaks by going around in a circle. Do you need to set a limit to how long members have the floor? Does the moderator change every month? Is he or she responsible for choosing the next title? If not, does the group choose titles in advance? Do you use a nomination process? Do members vote? When groups are first formed, these are some of the crucial procedures to work out. Once ground rules are agreed upon, it also can be helpful to make sure everyone agrees on the format your discussion will take. Many survey respondents said that they wanted a more formal discussion: discussion of the author, themes, and written questions that members try to address. Luckily there are many tools to help facilitate this kind of discussion. Book group editions of popular titles often come with questions and background for those who want help with finding good discussion fodder. There also are many websites with resources for book groups, such as www.readinggroupchoices.com and www.readinggroupguides.com. Publisher websites are another great place to get author information and discussion ideas. Have the tools that can soothe the structure-loving soul. You can have a book group without using prepared questions, but these resources can lead readers to deeper levels of discussion than they might have gone to on their own. Only your group can decide how formal your discussion will be. Try to find a meeting format that meets the needs of all members.

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