I have been facilitating book discussion groups since 2000, most of them at Book Passage, an independent bookstore located in Corte Madera, California, and more recently at Point Reyes Books on the coast.
I’m called a “facilitator” because members of the group pay me to assign the novels (I now work with fiction groups only) and begin each meeting with a few words about how a professional critic might judge the book we’re discussing. After that, I make sure everybody has a chance to talk as we go around the table. No one is required to speak, of course, but the discussion is easy and informal, and few people want to pass (they can always speak later if they do).
When the floor is open to discussion, my only job is to encourage people to ask questions and offer interpretations that get us deeper into the book. As a result, the most complex and multilayered work of fiction can be taken apart and laid out for all to explore, and in the process, the wondrous spirit of investigation that dominates the group allows for humor and (to me very moving) reflections by members throughout.
The group meets for two hours once a month for five months in two seasonal sessions. Fall Sessions, for example, take place once a month from September through January; Spring from February to June. The cost is $105 (I split this 50/50 with the store).
I used to believe that book reviewers like me had no business in a book group. Critics, after all, are paid to be objective and impersonal so they can tell you if the book is any good, and they use that objectivity to measure the writing against centuries-old literary standards.
Book groups, on the other hand, work best when novels hit a nerve — the more personal the better. It’s astounding to me that almost always, the more we talk about emotional reactions, the deeper are our insights into literary issues. And too, the more we dig into a book, the closer we get to that rich and elusive thing, the creative process, at the heart of all artistic ventures.
So my discovery about book groups has turned out to be the same as that of members: Drawing out and talking about things in a novel that are meaningful to each one of us contributes to a collective wisdom that builds and builds, reminding us how rewarding and important serious fiction can be in private life.
The title for the group is “Contemporary Classics,” which I have chosen as a deliberate contradiction in terms.
As most of us are taught in school, a book needs to stand the test of time before it can be considered a classic. It has to be reviewed widely, analyzed in literary journals, taught in graduate seminars and included in essays over a period of many years, even centuries (think of Homer or Voltaire).
But today in our fast-paced, post-Internet culture, critics and literary judges leap to praise books as “instant classics” soon after publication. Acclaim is heaped on, prizes are awarded and word is spread about the “great new classic!” with such excitement that time-honored questions about quality and literary worth are never asked.
Well: Are they or aren’t they? Destined to be classics, that is. These are the kinds of books that the “Contemporary Classics” Book Group likes to hold up to scrutiny. We don’t take on the easy-to-read potboiler or series mystery or smooth historical novel– you don’t need a book group to uncover literary complexity in these.
Rather, for our group, the chewier, more dense and “hard to read” novel the better. We want to hold these hugely praised books up to scrutiny and see if they pass muster by our standards. Very often, we find that they don’t! Or maybe they do! Sometimes the best, most lively and probing discussions emerge from differences of opinion as to how a Pulitzer or National Book Award or Man Booker Prize winner holds up.
I go into the idea of “serious literary merit” to stress that one needn’t have read widely, studied literature or learned about literary criticism to join the “Contemporary Classics” Book Group. Just come with a commitment to read one book a month for five months, and let the developing wisdom of the group be your only guide. I may be the facilitator of this group, but over the years I’ve found that being a member has made me a better critical reader.