by Barbara Berst Adams A version of this article first appeared in Hobby Farms Home Magazine.
“You only live once,” they say. But ‘they’ don’t know a secret to experiencing the adventures and absorbing the wisdom of many lives in a single lifetime. It happens when you journey into a world created by another… a novelist, a biographer, or even a non-fiction storyteller.
In the dead of winter, reading can take you to summer ocean hideaways in faraway lands, small-town USA, 12th Century France, or land you as an immigrant in early America’s New York City. Even more, beneath the heroic Old West sheriffs or the brave escapees from Russia, you’ll often find the story’s heroes and heroines triumphed not only over the extraordinary bad guys, but also the ordinary trials everyday people are concerned with such as tough relationships, lost dreams, and dwindling income.
Some characters themselves are quite ordinary, but we love to read their stories anyway, such as the 65-year-old Nan in The Beach House, by Jane Green, who searched for a way to raise her income in her remote resort location while mending her heart at the same time.
When you combine reading with discussing the with others within a reading group, the story comes alive even more. In reading groups (also called reading clubs or book clubs), friends agree to read a mutually chosen book, then gather monthly to discuss what they’ve read. My sister, whose hobbies include quilting and gardening, has also belonged to a reading group for 10 years. “There are 12 of us,” she says, “and we meet once a month at the house of the woman who picked the book.”
Reading groups are not only socially pleasant, but they seem to feed our higher intelligence, an area in our minds that craves stimulation and growth. School marms of long ago one-room schoolhouses knew a secret about that higher intelligence… that when older kids discussed and explained lessons to younger kids, those older students developed a higher understanding of what they’d read. The act of taking in information (as in through reading), then expressing what we’ve read outwardly to others seems to open up a deeper understanding of the material, and access and feed our own expanding wisdom.
Our perspective on life also expands when we’re exposed to others’ interpretations of what we’ve read. “What we have all come to learn,” says my sister, “is that the book group forces us to read books we would never otherwise read which has expanded all of our minds. For example, one woman loves non-fiction, and I just read George Washington: His Excellency by Joseph Ellis - something I would never have read on my own, but was very interesting (I don't think I've read about the revolutionary war since 3rd grade!).
"The other great learning experience for us," she says, "has been how differently we react to the same book. A few books we all dislike or like, but sometimes the group is decidedly split - a few will love it and others hate it. We have learned that our own lives and experiences and even what we are going through at the time has a big effect on our attitude towards the book. This also helps us expand our thinking, since I have come to discover gems people found in a book that I didn’t notice on my own, and have realized that not everyone gets as excited about some books as I do.”
And like watching a good movie with friends, it’s fun to know others are embedded in the same story at the same time.
Online reading groups are pleasant enough, but rural folks have always thrived on live community in the form of quilting bees and barn dances which guaranteed they gathered regularly with distant neighbors, friends and family. While those activities are still enjoyed today, reading clubs are available as a form of live community to anyone whether they know how to sew or dance.
Book club discussion tips
Some groups function best with an appointed group leader. He or she makes a list of discussion questions, and makes sure members remain on topic, start and stop on time, and all get their turn to speak. Other groups that know each other well find they can dispense with this formality. You may want to start with the more formal method, and if you find your group sort of just “takes care of itself” it can be eliminated or modified.
A modified example could be having all members bring at least three discussion topics concerning the current book. Topic ideas include: Were the characters’ situations believable to you? Are you glad the book was chosen as a reading group book? Which character(s) told the story, and how could it have been different if another had told the story?
Also, were there obvious “bad guys” you were supposed to dislike as readers, and did you dislike them completely, or did you find yourself ever feeling a little sorry for the bad guy? Who do you think was the most important secondary character, and did you like that person? Did you feel it was the plot or the characters that provided the most important driving force of the story?
For biographies and memoirs, was there a characteristic you wish the subject would have improved on to make his or her life better? What did you most admire about the subject of the memoir or biography? Did the subject change others’ lives or change history in any way? Do you feel you learned more about the book’s setting or time period or culture than you knew before reading this book?
For non-fiction, how did the book expand your knowledge of its topic? Was it different than what you thought it would be? What was the most interesting piece of information you gained from this book? How do you feel differently now than you did before reading it?
Reading guides. Some books have prepared reading guides you can download online from the publisher. These can open up great discussions you may not have thought of. You may want to avoid becoming dependent on them, though, as there are many quality books without this form of marketing available that you don’t want to miss out on.
Tips for staying on target. People who form and join reading clubs need to be aware of the benefits they’ll receive by following gentle rules such as staying on topic and letting everyone get equal time to speak. One reading group reports they stay on topic during the main meeting, then once it’s over, they serve snacks and beverages, and at that time allow open socialization.
Yet another woman tried that method in her own home, and found herself serving tea until late at night to two or three who just wouldn’t stop talking about various personal issues, and wouldn’t leave. Put a time frame on your group right up front for both the book topic and subsequent socializing. As mentioned, if your group members have already known each other for a long time, occasional off-target discussion interspersed with book discussion may balance itself out naturally, and might even be what you prefer. “We named ourselves ‘Dessert & Digress,’ says my sister, “because the hostess always provides dessert and we often digress from talking about the book since we all know each other.”
So many books…
It may be helpful to choose books far in advance so all members, including those who don’t use e-readers, have plenty of time to obtain the book, and those who need to can either find ways to purchase the books on sale, find them second-hand, borrow from friends or relatives, or check them out at the library.
Many groups, including my sister’s, take turns allowing members to choose the month’s book. If you need book ideas, and your group focuses on certain genres of fiction, you can easily find suggestions for books online, from bookstore fliers mailed out to customers, or at your library. If purposely expanding beyond genres you’re familiar with, make an effort to become aware of just how many there are, and of the subcategories they break into. You may even want to start out brainstorming on the many possibilities, then agree upfront on any you may want to leave out completely, such as horror or those promoting an obvious specific political or spiritual world view.
Examples of main fiction genres include mysteries, thrillers, romance, science-fiction, crime, fantasy, historical, Westerns, and classics. Within these categories, there are subcategories. Romance, for example, includes historical romance, mass paperback romance, contemporary romance, formula romance, series romance, paranormal romance, and Christian or other spiritual category romances. Though some publishers insist that crossing genres (such as the thriller with the romance) is never done, it is done, so don’t limit yourself only to recommendations from strict genre lists.
There are also short story collections, poetry, and anthologies to consider. Oddly, libraries often shelve poetry and folk stories in with non-fiction, so don’t be afraid to wander over to bookshelves you haven’t yet visited. And don’t forget to look into local fiction authors and small presses.
Non-fiction and cookbooks. Non-fiction can also be included as choices for book clubs. Memoirs, auto-biographies, biographies, financial strategies, rural how-tos or country lifestyle books can be fascinating.
Michael Ableman’s book, Fields of Plenty, travels across the country to describe and interview innovative farmers using various eco-friendly farming techniques. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, otherwise novelist Barbara Kingsolver has written her first non-fiction on how her family spent a year avoiding commercial food and eating only what was either produced locally or grown themselves.
Even cookbooks that tell deeper stories can make for fascinating book club reading. My friends and family enjoyed Cooking with Heirlooms by Karen Keb Acevedo. Its seasonal recipes are sprinkled with stories of real farmers that produce the ingredients. The stories themselves can be the topic of discussion, but cooking can certainly be part of such a reading group.
One group of cookbook reading club members selects a new cookbook every month or two. Then they each cook a few selected dishes from it on their own, and when they meet again, report on how it turned out. The host of their monthly meeting also cooks and serves a final dish from the chosen cookbook to serve at the gathering. As with fiction, memoirs, and biographies, when seeking cookbooks that tell stories, also check for local or regionally published cookbooks.
As an example, I live in the Skagit Valley of Washington State, one of the world’s most fertile valleys, and also one struggling to preserve its farmland from development. In an effort to preserve the history and knowledge of food grown in the area, Skagit Valley Fare: A Cookbook Celebrating Beauty and Bounty of the Pacific Northwest by Lavonne Newell, offers recipes from the locals as well as a history of the area. The fascinating history includes stories of the original Native Americans, the first white settlers, what they ate and how they prepared their food.
Kids’ classics. Reading groups can be intergenerational, but even adult-only reading clubs can enjoy returning to children’s classics they may have forgotten or even missed in their childhoods. Laura Ingalls Wilder books about growing up as a pioneer child are fascinating. I enjoyed reading them in a new way as an adult. The Secret Garden, A Wrinkle in Time, Heidi… all continue to appeal to adults and kids alike.
More recent books such as the Hank the Cow Dog series take readers right onto a working cattle ranch and have had many adults laughing themselves almost sick at the personality of Hank, who narrates the stories. When I went to see the author of the Hank books, John Erickson, speak at a local bookstore, he was surrounded not only by eager kids as young as third graders, but adult fans who came on their own to meet him. Some books have a way of appealing to all ages. Going back in time via books can help adults recall that feeling of “anything is possible.”
But whether readers go back with Laura to The Little House on the Prairie, barely escape with their lives during the Civil War, or solve mysteries in South Africa, many readers, oddly, notice their own worlds feel richer after having lived many different lives and shared them with others. Happy reading!
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