Do All Good Book Club Books Have Guides?
A reading guide is simply a list of suggested topics for discussion, most often created by the publisher. Many books suitable for book clubs have reading guides - and a reading guide can be a good indicator of the book's suitability for discussion (i.e. the publisher has invested the time and money in creating a guide). But there are also many books that are very suitable for discussion that do not have available guides (and, for that matter, the availability of a guide is not a guarantee of a good discussion).
If you only pick books that are established book club favorites, the chances are you'll find a reading guide for most, if not all. But if you want to read more widely, maybe in genres that are less read by book clubs, or newly published books, you probably won't find a reading guide every time (oftentimes publishers will wait to publish the guide until the book publishes in paperback.)
Who Uses Reading Guides?
Around a third of book clubs say that the availability of a reading guide is a factor in their decision about what to read (but just 1% say it's a must have). If the book you're going to discuss has a guide it's almost certainly worth looking through for topics that you think will interest your group. But what if there's no guide, or there is a guide but the topics just don't seem right for your group (occasionally reading guides veer too far to the simplistic, othertimes they can be so erudite as to be almost unintelligible in a discussion setting.) No problem! It's easy to come up with topics yourself!
DIY Reading Guides
Use the Topic Ideas list below to trigger your own ideas about the particular book you're reading. Aim for about 7-10 topics that you think will be good - but don't feel you have to use them all, if the group is happy exploring one particular area there's no need to move them on, and many discussions will naturally transition from one topic to another without you needing to inject a fresh topic.
Remember, you're only looking for a handful of 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. You can type them out or just scribble on a bit of paper - they're your topics for your meeting, so do what is right for you.
Many of the most interesting book club discussions relate to the book but aren't necessarily about specific characters. We host regular book discussions on BookBrowse and usually the topics that get the most posts are those that relate to the book but allow people to bring their own life experience into the discussion. For example, one of most discussed topics in Quiet asked introverts about the challenges of working with extroverts, and vice versa; with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks we had an engaged discussion on the ethics of medical research; and for When She Woke we had a vibrant discussion on the US prison population and when it is right to imprison someone.
- 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?
What voice is the story written in - the first person (I, we), third person (he, she), or rarely in the second person (you)? How does this perspective color the story? If the story is told from multiple viewpoints, how do these different perspectives influence your perception? Is the book told from one point of view or many? Is this a genre that you're familiar with? Does the book 'break the mold' in any way.
- What do the characters do?
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 you find their actions troubling?How would you act in a similar situation? 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 the past, is this a period you know anything about? Would you have liked to live in this time? 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 books?
- 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 like it, why not, what 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, or even yourself?
- Project into the future
What do you think will happen to the characters next? Does the author plan a sequel? Would you read a sequel?
- Compare and Contrast
Have you read other similar books? Perhaps books by the same author or with a similar theme, or set in the same time period? (Be careful with this topic not to stray too far into other books, otherwise the majority of the group may find themselves out of the loop listening to a small number of discussing the relative merits of books that the rest haven't read.