The process of building meaning in our lives results from navigating the tension we feel between what we believe and what we experience. Books and stories help us build more meaning by give us access to experience outside and beyond ourselves, especially when we bring more mindfulness and intentionality to our reading.
We can expand our experiences with the stories we read even further if we can have thoughtful conversations about them with others. I think that’s why so many people who love to read also participate in book groups. So, in honor of National Reading Group Month, I offer these five tips for having great conversations with your reading group.
1. Assign a group member to prepare and present background information for each book. You should be able to find author interviews and book reviews for your book on the internet. Having someone dig into this information and share some of the highlights with the group can be a great way to launch an interesting book discussion. Some of my favorite resources for information about books and authors are NPR, New York Times Book Reviews, the Guardian, Los Angeles Times, and Goodreads.
2. Have a discussion leader prepare questions for the meeting. Sometimes these are provided by the book’s publisher and are included with the book or on the publisher’s website. But other times, these will need to be created. Eight to ten questions should be enough to spur a good conversation. Try to include a mix of questions that cover both story elements, as well as the emotions and insights triggered by the story. A tool like the Soul Reading Journal and its consistent, structured questions can be a useful way to do this exploration for each book the group reads.
3. Pick books that the group members want to read. This seems obvious, but it can take some time to get to know the reading preferences of a group – genres and types of stories the group enjoys, the reading pace of the members, and times of the year when people are more and less busy. My own reading group does best when we select books that are no more than 300 pages and have at least a four-star rating on Amazon or Goodreads. We tend to read current novels with an occasional memoir, classic, or nonfiction selection. By sticking to guidelines we’ve built together over the years, we tend to select books with a high probability that most or all of the members will have read the book for the meeting. Of course, higher participation with the book always yields higher participation in the discussion. If your group is newer, have patience. Choosing the right books will take some trial and error.
4. Consider adopting a theme. Reading sets of three or four books that relate to each other in some way can be a great way to expand the conversation with group members. It not only lends itself to exploring questions around the theme, but it also invites discussion beyond a single book to compare books within the set. Need ideas for a theme? You could try a set of coming-of-age stories, stories that address grief and loss, or stories that explore journeys of some kind.
5. Make it about more than the books. If members are relaxed and happy spending time with each other, they will naturally have better conversations. My own book group looks for opportunities to do book-related activities together. We have attended author talks, plays, and movies together. Sometimes we’ve even just gone to dinner together to break the routine of our monthly meetings. Having great conversations about books will only be enhanced if the group members feel good sharing and opening up to each other.