Kate Mitrovich runs a thematic book discussion group at the Lincoln Township Public Library in Stevensville, Michigan. The book club is inspired by the American Library Association's "Let's Talk About It" book discussion model which involves reading a series of books linked by a particular theme. Groups are encouraged to discuss each book, and the series as a whole, "through the lens of the humanities"; that is to say, to relate the readings to historical trends and events, other works of literature, philosophical and ethical considerations.
Hello Kate, thank you for talking with us. First off, please tell us about your group.
The group has been together for about two years. There are usually about twelve to fourteen women at a meeting, sometimes one or two men. The group is diverse in interests and age, from about 25 to 80, so has a lively personality with strong social and political beliefs that impact the nature and direction of the conversation, as well as the individual reactions to the titles.
How did the group get started?
The chance came up for me to apply for a book discussion grant sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) and the Fetzer Institute. Within the structure of the grant, books from different genres were incorporated around a central theme. Once I received the grant I advertised in the local newspapers, put posters up in the surrounding communities and of course posters in the library. That is how the group evolved. The discussion theme was "Love, Forgiveness and Wisdom". I worked with a professor from a local university and around twelve to twenty people attended each discussion in the series. It seemed to be a format that people really enjoyed so I have done two other book discussion series with the same format, and have also received a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council.
How did the link with the local university come about?
The library has a partnership with Andrews University; Professor Becky De Oliveira, from their English department, has been working with us on and off for the past two years and is a wonderful discussion leader. She starts the discussion with a quiz, and then we go over the answers and much of our discussion evolves from there with someone making a point about an answer which generates discussion.
What sort of books did you read in this first series?
Two of the books were Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale and Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility - both from ALA's "Love, Forgiveness and Wisdom" reading list.
What was the second ALA inspired theme?
After "Love, Forgiveness and Wisdom", I used another ALA list centering on family: "The Way We Are: Seasons in the Contemporary American Family". I used some of the titles suggested by the ALA but changed a few. The ALA selections that I used were A Raisin in the Sun, a play by Lorraine Hansberry and Points of View, a 1966 anthology edited by James Moffett and Kenneth McElheny; and I added Plainsong by Kent Haruf, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas and A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley.
I'm interested that you selected a book of short stories to discuss, and even more challenging - an anthology. Did you read all the stories in the collection or just certain ones?
We selected three stories from the collection: The Stone Boy by Gina Berriault, A&P by John Updike and the Five Forty Eight by John Cheever.
How does having a theme help your discussions?
Having a theme is a good way to tie a group of books together. We can look back at the end of a series and see how the books are alike and different from one other. To find similar books I start by looking for books with similar themes and one of the sources I use is BookBrowse. I use the read-alike feature. I also look at other websites. We get the books through inter-library loan so I always check mel.org which tells me how many libraries in Michigan have the book as I have to be able to get at least tweleve copies.
Tell us about some of the books that have generated the most interesting discussions?
The books that make for the best discussion usually have some element of human behavior with which everyone has an opinion or some experience. A few of the titles that have generated the most interesting discussion are seemingly unlikely titles such as Points of View, A Raisin in the Sun and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. My favorite story comes from our discussion of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. An older gentleman had come to the discussion and he had the best insight into the book. He talked about going to visit his friend in the nursing home and how the friend was blind and losing his hearing. He often thought that maybe it was too frustrating for his friend to have visitors. After reading the book however, he gained insight into how just being there for someone is sometimes all that the person needs. One of the group's favorite books was Plainsong by Kent Haruf.
Are there any that haven't worked?
Books that tie everything together neatly in the end do not make for the best discussions, such as, Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas. It was also hard to get discussion going for The Essential Rumi. Poetry can be a difficult genre and the cultural diversity of this work also made it a slow starter for this conventionally fiction reading crowd.
What are some other themes and selections you're considering for the future?
We're just embarking on a series of books that we've selected ourselves. The theme is "Based on a True Story: Inspiring People in Fiction". All of the books are fiction but are based on actual historical events. The books were selected on the basis of suggestions from the group, research on what other book discussion groups are reading and what books are readily available through inter-library loan. They include Half Broke Horses, The Heretic's Daughter and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. For the future we're considering "Michigan Made" (authors that were born in Michigan); "Escape the Winter Blues" (books that take place in warm locations) and "Grab Bag" (books with nothing in common).
Have you faced any challenges as a group, for example, are no-shows a problem or people coming to the meeting not having read the book?
My policy is always to welcome those that are interested in joining the book discussion group. If they have not read the book, they are still welcome. Since all library meetings are open to the public, we cannot turn anyone away and would not want to. Attendance at the meeting by people who have not read the book may stimulate them to read the book, or to read the next in the series. Sometimes conversations can wander a bit and we get off track, but Becky or I will bring the discussion back to the book.
Are there any tips that you'd like to pass on to other book clubs?
Don't be afraid to try a book that is not currently on the bestseller list or that was published in the last ten years.
Thank you Kate, I wish you and your group many happy years reading and discussing together.
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