The Milpitas Library Book Group in Northern California has been going strong since 1999. BookBrowse spoke with librarian Terye Balogh, who has been instrumental in bringing a wide range of authors to visit. She shares some excellent advice about how to bring authors to your group, manage large discussions, and keep your group engaged.
Hi Terye! Tell us a bit about your group
The book group first began in 1999. I took over facilitating the group in 2004. Currently there are 33 members. The average number of members that attend a meeting is about 17. This number has dramatically shot up since we've moved to our new library, which has lots of parking and a beautiful auditorium for our meetings.
Wow, that's a big group! Tell us a little about your members.
The ages vary - I would say from about early 30's to early 70's. The group is mainly women, but we do have 3 men in our group. I feel very lucky that our group works so well together. We have a nice mix of people. If I had to describe the personality of the group I would say, gracious and welcoming. I've been very impressed with the hospitality they have shown not only to new members, but to our guest authors as well.
What kinds of books do you read?
We read a great variety of fiction and non-fiction, with a classic thrown in once a year. The group enjoys reading about different cultures, different eras, and non-fiction of lesser known figures or events in history. I enjoy finding titles that got lost in the madness of bestsellers - lost gems, as it were.
You've brought some amazing authors to visit, tell us about some of them.
Khaled Hosseini was the first author we had at the library - this was in 2004 and The Kite Runner was just beginning to gather a huge following. I had just taken over the book group and had never interviewed an author before. He was very gracious, very sweet and had wonderful stories to tell. All of the authors that we've had here have been fantastic. Barbara Quick gave a very dramatic reading from her book Vivaldi's Virgins. Kate Moses charmed us all with her tales of researching her book Wintering: a Novel of Sylvia Plath, and brought to us an even deeper understanding of Ms. Plath's struggles. C.W. Gortner, author of The Last Queen, was another crowd pleaser. He had some wonderful stories about the life of Juana of Castile.
Image right: Barbara Quick
Image left: Kate Moses
How do you structure the meetings with an author present?
I introduce the author to the group, reading biographical information on them, and then start off the discussion with a question or two. The event is also opened to the public and the audience is invited to ask questions or give comments to the author. I act as a host, making sure everyone gets heard.
How does having the author present affect the readers' experiences or opinions of the book?
I have seen instances where a visit by an author has completely transformed readers' perceptions of the book. A book that they may have thought of as unbelievable, or a subject too sad, suddenly becomes a book that they adore and cherish. I think we all come away with a new and greater appreciation for the craft of writing after an author visit. All of the authors speak very passionately about their characters, with reverence and awe. And with each author, we learn something different about the writing process.
Tell us about some of the books that have generated the most interesting discussions?
The first book that comes to mind is Bold Spirit : Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America by Linda Hunt. This is a true story of an immigrant mother of eight, who in 1896, reads about a dare from an anonymous sponsor, promising $10,000 to the first woman to walk across the United States. All aspects of her journey were extremely fascinating, but the ending was heartbreaking. Her family, seeing her as selfish and willful and not appreciating the sacrifices she made for her family, never talked about this event in her life. A distant relative found her long lost journal and published the story. This brought forth a wonderful discussion of the appreciation of our ancestors, with many members sharing stories of forgotten triumphs their family members undertook.
What types of books do you think make the best discussions?
I find that the books with the most conflict, and really well-defined characters lend themselves best to discussion. Lesser-known books tend to garner more discussion as well; as we discuss the merits of this little know gem, we all share a sense of discovery. We have read a great variety of topics: pioneer women, gambling men, tales of life in far and distant lands, adventures from present day and long ago. With each of these books, there is the sense of learning something new, of connecting with a topic not before known, or finding a character we haven't encountered before makes for a great discussion.
Any that haven't proved to be such great discussion-starters?
One that didn't work in a discussion format would probably be The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. While we all loved the book, we found it hard to discuss. The characters were interesting, the story very good, but it was as if we enjoyed it too much to break it down and dissect it amongst ourselves.
Are there any books that bombed? If so, why do you think they did?
One book that did not go over well at all was My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. The story was interesting, but difficult to follow, as there were too many voices in the book. A dog, the color red and a murdered artist were just a few of the voices of the book. The book was also printed in rather small print, making it that much harder to read.
Another book that the group continues to bring up as an example of a book they didn't like is Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I was rather surprised at the reaction. This is one of my favorite books, but many in the group had a hard time liking Ignatius J. Reilly. When I shared information about the author there was a newfound sympathy for Mr. Toole's life, but still not much for poor Ignatius. I also tried Timothy, or, Notes of an Abject Reptile by Verlyn Klinkenborg. This story told from the point of view a tortoise was not a crowd pleaser. It was, not surprisingly, slow.
Can you tell us about how you encourage discussion and participation from your members? It must be a challenge with such a large group?
I learned a great lesson in participation from another book group leader. There was a woman in her group that didn't join in the discussions. As leader she was asked by the other members to talk to the woman and tell her she needed to participate. When she spoke with her she learned that the woman had suffered a great loss in her family, and by being in the group she was able to feel a part of something. She enjoyed the books that were selected and she enjoyed hearing the discussions, but through her grief was unable to bring her self to join in.
I like the idea of creating a place where someone can feel comfortable in the presence of books, and of book discussions. I have had members that were new to the English language and I did let them know that the books I choose might not be easy to read, but they stayed for awhile, learning the art of discussion and the joy of reading.
Are there any tips that you'd like to pass on to other book clubs, particularly for libraries who are interested in starting a new group, or generating interest in an existing one?
Stop worrying if the members will like the books. Not everyone is going to like every book. The fun of this group is reading books you wouldn't normally read. The best discussions come from books that hit a note with the group, and that's not always ones that they like. It makes for a very boring meeting if everyone agrees and likes the book, as the discussion stalls rather quickly.
Don't be intimidated to ask an author to your group. I prefer to ask the authors directly, usually through their website. This garners a faster response and it's so much easier to coordinate when you're not going through a publisher or publicist. Authors love to talk to readers. Every author I've had at our group has been tremendously thankful for book groups.
Mix things up a bit. Present a wide variety of books to read. Have a book/movie tie-in. We read The Ox-Bow Incident and then later in the week showed the movie in the library. It was very enjoyable. For the months where you usually have low attendance (August and December for us) do something different. In the past we've read plays, and now we're doing book chats; a topic is given and everyone reads a book on that topic, fiction or non-fiction and then shares the book with the group.
Use your local independent bookstore! I've enjoyed a great relationship with Books Inc. Though not in Milpitas, the store in Mountain View has been invaluable. From book suggestions, author suggestions, a generous discount and being available for our author visits to sell copies of the authors book, I would not have the success I've had if it weren't for them!
For libraries, make good use of your Friends groups. The Friends of the Milpitas Library group has been extremely helpful. They purchase the books for our group and they also provide the honorarium for our authors.
Excellent advice! Your group sounds wonderful. Thank you, Terye, for sharing your experiences with our members.