A must-read for the book-group circuit

'Year of Reading': More self-help than a 'Book Club for Dummies'

Pop Culture

January 19, 2003|By Maria Blackburn | By Maria Blackburn,Sun Staff

The idea of the book group seems so virtuous, so high-minded, so pure. A group of people read the same book and then sit around for a few pleasurable hours each month engaging in stimulating conversation about plot points and character development, metafiction and memoir, literary merits and shortcomings. Glasses of mediocre merlot are optional. Opinions are not.

Maybe some book groups start out this way, but sooner or later -- perhaps after six months or so -- even the most literary of gatherings can turn ugly. For starters, there's the annoying book group member who hates everything she reads, including books she picks. Then there are the meetings in which members talk about their spouses, their kids and the simply delicious brownies, but fail to discuss the book at hand. And finally, there's the seemingly never-ending search for a book that's interesting yet readable, worthy of discussion but not overexposed.

What's a literary type to do? Why, read a book, of course.

In A Year of Reading (Sourcebooks, $14.95), authors Elisabeth Ellington and Jane Freimiller offer advice and ideas to people who feel their book groups have lost some of their luster.

To counter the overly negative reader, they advise saying something like "Tell us one of your favorite books. What do you like about it?" To redirect a wayward conversation back to books, the authors (who met in a book group, naturally) suggest saying, "I am interested in the average annual rainfall in Bolivia, but I would really like to continue talking about the book."

And to find a book that's just perfect for your particular group, they've filled their tome with suggested titles -- 60 of them, to be exact. The books are arranged by month and divided into the categories "Crowd Pleaser," "Classic," "Challenge," "Memoir" and "Potluck." In January, why not try Willa Cather's My Antonia. In April, make it My Garden by Jamaica Kincaid and in November peruse The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher.

A Year of Reading was inspired by the research Ellington and Freimiller were doing for a book on the history of book groups. (The groups began not with Oprah, but actually date to the 18th century, when books were expensive and joining a group to read them was more of a necessity than an option.) However, when nearly everyone they met in the course of their research inquired about what books they should read for their book groups, the women realized that their book needed to be more practical than historical, more popular than academic.

Beyond bestsellers

The goal of A Year of Reading, the authors say, is to get people in book groups reading more than just bestsellers like The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold or classics like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. They also want readers to get beyond responding to a book with a mere "I liked it" or "I hated it."

"People I know who aren't even that interested in reading are in book groups," said Ellington, a Barrington, N.H., resident who teaches 18th-century British literature at Brandeis University outside Boston. "A lot of people who are joining don't know how to get great discussions going about books. ... They want to be in book groups to get involved in deeper discussions about meaningful things we don't talk about in our daily lives."

To assist them in getting these conversations underway, Ellington and Freimiller not only suggest what to read, but also how to read it.

Each book recommendation includes a plot summary, brief author biography and a handful of questions for reading and discussion. Anyone familiar with the yellow and black Cliff Notes study guides to classic books will recognize the format. The authors -- who include extra credit questions and Internet sites for more information about a given topic -- are so thorough, in fact, that in some cases the reader gets the feeling that he or she may not actually have to read a book to have a working knowledge of it.

Ellington seems surprised at such a suggestion. She also says that she does not consider A Year of Reading a version of Book Groups for Dummies. The book isn't for book-group novices -- it's for veterans. And making use of its information might be just the thing that keeps your book group from going the way of Oprah's.

It's not enough to simply form a book group, Ellington maintains; one must also cultivate it.

"If a book group doesn't change and grow in some way," she says, "it's going to die."

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