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April 18, 2008

National Library Week: Themed Discussions

Posted by carol
In celebration of National Library Week (April 13-19), we've invited librarians to share their insights about book clubs. Today's guest blogger is Polly Thompson Wolf, who wears many hats at the Culver Union-Township Public Library in Culver, Indiana, including working with the library's book club, Hooked on Books. Here she shares some ideas for centering reading group discussions on an author or theme rather than a single title.

Two years ago, Hooked on Books was born. Fifteen people decided the first three titles: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World's Most Powerful Company Really Works--and How It's Transforming the American Economy by Charles Fishman and Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee.

The first month was successful, but by the second month I had begun to meddle. I couldn't fathom how anyone could really have that much to say about Wal-Mart. You either liked them or didn't, and once you knew their floor plan and how they positioned their merchandise, well, it wasn't going to fill up 90 minutes. I remembered my insurance agent had been the man in charge of putting in the Wal-Mart in our neighboring community, and I invited him to the meeting. He told his story: his climb through the ranks of Wal-Mart and how he eventually put his keys on the desk and walked out. He had been squeezed like a sponge. It made for a good discussion and filled more than 90 minutes.

The third month, I added the novel Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala along with Coetzee's Disgrace and called the meeting "Africa, Africa." This was the beginning of using themes in our book club. Even though the stories were very different, the discussion had real muscle to it. We lost a member of the group with "Africa, Africa," though. He simply didn't want to be part of a group that read about child rape in Africa.

I then became panicky because my selections for the next month (with adult themes) were Walter Mosley's mysteries Little Scarlet and Devil in a Blue Dress. I worried all month that no one would show and that would be the end of the book club. Not so. Mosley mysteries rule. The group showed up and assured me they could handle adult themes. That was the beginning of authors as a theme.

When the group decided to read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, I enhanced the theme of "Circus, Circus" by adding a book of short stories, The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day. Day's family had been part of the circus that wintered in Peru, Indiana, and I called the old winter home and talked to a 97-year-old lady who used to be a trapeze artist and who had also trained elephants in her youth. While I didn't get her as a speaker, I did get two gentlemen from Peru's Circus Museum to tell the winter circus story and show rare footage from that era.

The "Circus, Circus" theme was easy and everything fell into place, but what about a good book with an uncertain appeal? One month I chose The Egg and I, Betty MacDonald's memoir about her adventures on a chicken farm in Washington State. It appealed to me because my husband and I have a small three-acre hobby farm and raise chickens, and when we were first married we lived in the Pacific Northwest. I could identify with MacDonald's humorous story, but I wasn't sure the book would appeal to the males in our group and so I paired it with Nick Hornby's High Fidelity. I called the meeting "That was Then, This is Now," comparing rural Pacific Northwest life in the 1940s and '50s to London in the 1990s, traditional values and wholesale shallowness. Our gentlemen readers really didn't care much for Rob, High Fidelity's antihero, but he was supported and understood by the women in our group. Conversely, one gentleman thought MacDonald's description of the Pacific forests was just flat good. He really liked it. Though you can't predict who will like what, you can broaden the appeal.

I had read A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka and wanted to include the title for a future book club read. After friendly ribbing by my co-worker on the appeal of Ukrainian tractors, I decided to pair this bittersweet, dark comedy with a nonfiction title called Borderland: A Journey through the History of the Ukraine by Anna Reid. The theme was "Borders and Boarders." To understand Lewycka's book, you need to know the Ukraine, and the appeal was broadened with the addition of Borderland to the discussion.

Authors we've read have included Jack London, Cormac McCarthy and, as mentioned previously, Walter Mosley. I selected one title for discussion and then, for the second book, opened it to reader's choice. The core read for Jack London was one of his short story collections, When God Laughs, and for McCarthy, it was Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, and Mosley's was Little Scarlet.

Our discussion focuses on the core book, but people who have read other titles often share interesting insights and help flesh out identified problems. Can you imagine moderating a group on Cormac McCarthy, a relatively unknown writer to our group, when everyone has read a different title? A few people had read Blood Meridian and didn't like the violence; another read The Road, another started The Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain) and someone else read one of his earlier plays. Luckily, I had read them all. They went for his psychic jugular, and I think that was fair.

Jack London was different. I had purchased London's biography on DVD, and we used half of the discussion time watching it and learning about London's fascinating life. The men loved the short stories and wanted to talk about each one, which was not surprising as they have masculine themes. The group identified a purity of thought, reminiscent of "older" authors and a different time.

In retrospect from a reader's advisory perspective, we've adapted our book club's reading list to accommodate the way members like to read. Whether they prefer a fast-paced book or one with detail, something that's warm and fuzzy or just plain funny, offering choices through themes and authors has worked for our group. I hope it does for yours.

---Polly Thompson Wolf