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Advice to bookclubs: Writing your own reading guides

Creating Your Own Reading Guides

DIY Discussion Guides

Most book club discussion guides are created by publishers, who are beginning to catch on to the huge growth in book discussion group. However, there are still relatively few guides available and most tend to be for certain types of books (the genre loosely known as 'literary fiction') and often only available once the book comes out in paperback.

So, what do you do if you really want to discuss a particular book but there's no reading guide available? No problem, just come up with a few questions to get the discussion going, and start talking!

The following are suggested starting points for creating your own discussion questions. As a general rule, start with broad questions and look for where the interest of the group lies, then focus in on specific issues. Use the ideas below as triggers for creating questions relevant to the particular book you're studying. Aim for about 5-10 key discussion points that will generate conversation - and if everyone is happy discussing one particular aspect, don't feel the need to rush the group on to another topic.

How to use this list
Use the following list to trigger your own ideas about the particular book you're reading. Remember, you're only looking for about half a dozen discussion points, so you don't have to go through this list exhaustively. Instead, skim it for possible question areas that are relevant to the book you're going to discuss, and in just a few minutes you'll have a list of thought provoking questions specific to your particular book, ready for your book club meeting.

  • Who are the key characters?
    Do one or more of the characters tell the story? If so, how do their own circumstances color the telling? Do you empathize with the characters? Are their voices genuine, are they believable? For example does a child narrator sound the age he/she should be? Does the voice of a character set in a particular place or time ring true? Are the characters or their circumstances familiar to you?

  • What style is it written in?
    Is it written in the first person, third person, or perhaps the second person, or perhaps a combination? Is the story told from one point of view or many? What genre is it? Is this a genre that you're familiar with? Does the book 'break the mold' in anyway.

  • What do the characters do?
    Do they react the way you think you would in a similar situation? Do you find their actions troubling? Are their actions consistent with their characters? If not, perhaps ask yourself if it is reasonable for anyone to be expected to act consistently in character! Do their experiences cause them to grow? If so, how?

  • What is the book about?
    Does the book have a central theme? If so what? Does it have many themes? If so how do they interlink? Is one theme more dominant than others? Do the themes blend naturally with the storyline or do you feel the author is using his/her characters to labor a particular point?

  • What time period is it set in?

  • If it's set in a previous time period, is this a period you know anything about? Would you have liked to live in this period? What would be the advantages/disadvantages? If set in the future - do you think it's a credible view of the future? Is it one that you'd wish on future generations? If it's set in the current time, what current events, if any, color the story?

  • When was the book written?
    If it's written recently, do you think it will date well or badly - will people still be reading it in 10 years, 50 years, a hundred years? If it was written sometime ago - does it feel like it's a product of its time? Is it a book that could be written now? If not, why not? What does it say about people's values at the time? Have they changed?

  • Where does it take place?
    Do the location and environment of the book color the telling of the story or are they merely a backdrop? Does the location change during the book or stay the same? If it changes, does this have any effect on the central characters?

  • What do you know about the author?
    Is the book autobiographical, has the author brought his/her own experience to the book, is it similar to other books the author has written, is it similar in style to other books by the author, and does the author show any growth/change in style between the books etc.

  • What did you like or dislike?
    Did you like the book or not? Did you enjoy it? Is it possible to find a book interesting without 'enjoying' it? If you didn't enjoy it what sort of person do you think would? Do you think you might have enjoyed it more or less if you'd read it when you were younger or perhaps waited to read it when you were older? Did you have expectations of it? If so did it live up to them? Had you read reviews before reading it? If so, do you find yourself agreeing with the 'official' reviewers or not? Do you think the book jacket synopsis and jacket illustration do a good job of indicating the type of book it it? Would you give it as a gift? If so, who would you give it to? Can you see yourself reading it again? Is this book a 'keeper' - if you had to halve the size of your book collection would this be one of the books that stayed or went?!

  • How did the book affect you?
    Do you feel 'changed' in anyway? Did it expand your range of experience or challenge your assumptions (for example did it take you to a place you haven't been before or help you see a place you know in a different light). Did reading it help you to understand a person better - perhaps a friend or relative, or even yourself?

  • Project into the future
    What do you think will happen to the characters next? Does the author plan a sequel?

  • Compare and Contrast
    Contrast this book with others you have read, for example, books by the same author, with a similar theme, or set in the same time period. However, be careful to stay focused on the book in hand otherwise the majority of members may find themselves out of the loop listening to two members discussing the relative merits of books that the rest haven't read!
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