28 May 2015

Book Notes: Choosing for a Book Club

My book club in Seoul is choosing its list for next year. We do this once a year so everyone has a chance to order things in bulk or pick up titles stateside over the summer. We just finished our fifth year of reading together, so I thought I'd offer some advice on things that have worked for our group--in case someone out there would like to begin a book club but doesn't know where to start.

Here's the basic breakdown:

  • One book a month
  • Various genres, alternating fiction and nonfiction
    • Nonfiction: biography, history, instruction, other
    • Fiction: classical, historical, sci-fi/fantasy, modern, other
  • Discussion while sharing dessert and/or coffee

It's pretty simple. The best parts, as others have told me, are 1) that we all read books we ourselves probably wouldn't choose and 2) that we get to talk about what we're learning, which helps us process and apply truth.

The book club, then, consists of three things: readers, books, and a system to synchronize the two. Today, we will talk specifically about choosing good books, and we may tackle the other two components in a future post.

So what kinds of books stimulate good group discussions?

In my opinion, the best book club choices have the following three traits: cross-cultural applicability, reasonable length, and depth beyond plot and/or labeling. I'll define these further below as well as give examples of books we've read in our book club that either characterize or fall short of each trait.

1. Cross-cultural applicability
Even while a book explores one culture, readers from anywhere can identify with its themes and overall message. It is not too situation-specific and doesn't ostracize a people group from appreciating its content.

Excellent choice: Cry, the Beloved Country
Why? The book is set in Africa but the discussion was about fear, prejudice, stereotypes, forgiveness, and hope.
Not-so-great choice: Living Reed
Why? The book is too specific to Korea. 

2. Reasonable length
When we're reading one book a month, the books can't be extraordinarily long. Or, if one is, it had better capture the reader within the first 25 pages or no one will finish it in time.  For our group, the ideal length for a one-month book is between 200 and 300 pages.

Excellent choice: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Why? This is a longer book, but from the very start (even in the introduction), we were all engaged and committed to reading it. 
Not-so-great choice: Middlemarch
Why? This classic takes a while to get rolling because of all the characters and conflicts being introduced. Most of our readers fizzled out before reaching 1/4 of the way through--especially deterred by the long length and the month deadline. (Disclaimer: I did finish the book eventually and do recommend it! However, maybe read it over a longer period like two or even three months.)

3. Depth beyond plot (fiction) or insight beyond facts (nonfiction)
Some fiction books are pure entertainment, and some nonfiction books are pure complaining, labeling, or reporting. These do not make for good discussions. There is nothing to talk about.

Excellent choices: The Help and Nothing to Envy
Why? The Help was much more than a story. It sparked a vibrant and passionate conversation about labels, equality, courage, hypocrisy, and sacrifice. Nothing to Envy tells the true stories of North Korean defectors, but the book isn't mere reporting. It made us all think further into the issues and curious about real solutions.
Not-so-great choices: Water for Elephants and The Greatest Stories Never Told
Why? After 20 minutes of summarizing our favorite parts from Water for Elephants, our book club conversation veered away from the novel. "Are we done talking about the book?" I asked, just to make sure. Yup, we were done. The setting educated us about the circus, and the plot kept us interested, but the book itself did not open up for anything deeper.  In a similar way, The Greatest Stories Never Told was a fun history read, but it did not spur on discussion beyond summary.

So choosing books to read and discuss as a group is different than choosing books to read alone. In addition to the three criteria listed above, an important note is this: Don't choose anyone's absolute favorite book! What if someone doesn't like it or wants to criticize it? The discussion would be marked with awkward politeness or notable offence. It's better just to keep the reading choices in more neutral territory where everyone can be honest about his or her impressions.

These are my tips on choosing titles for a book club. If you're not in a reading group, find one! Ideally, this would be among face-to-face friends, but if that's not an option, many book clubs are forming online now. (We may even return to one on this site in the future--maybe this summer.) So join up with someone somewhere and begin talking about what you read. We are not meant to stop learning, and we're more likely to venture into intimidating literature when journeying alongside others. 

Abide in Him,

Would you add anything to my list of criteria for book club choices?
Will you recommend a good book for my book club to read together?

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