Choosing the right books for a book club is never easy, as there is no universal agreement to what makes a book ‘good’. And not all ‘good’ books are great as discussion books. Editor, writer and CAE Book Groups Program Coordinator, Jess Zibung, shares some insight behind selecting books that inspire discussion.
It’s often not enough to pick out a rollicking yarn as the book of a month. When it comes to selecting a book for your group, it’s important to look at its discussion potential, otherwise the conversation can quickly run out of steam.
When assessing a book’s potential, themes play a large role. Themes often elicit unique viewpoints from your group members. Sure, a Jeffrey Archer novel might keep you up at night flipping pages, but it doesn’t mean there will be enough topics to discuss for 1–2 hours. Discussion-worthy books can often be divisive books, and that’s okay, as it is often the books that don’t reach a universal consensus that will make for rich and memorable discussions.
A tried and tested CAE Book Groups method is to rate a book on two separate scales. The first rating is an overall reading experience. The second rating is to assess a book’s potential for discussion. The books that score closest to 10 would make up your shortlist.
Choosing books is an art, not a science. Everyone has a reading bias. We all lean toward a type of genre, writing style or theme (consciously or unconsciously). The best you can do to avoid this is to develop an awareness of your reading bias to ensure a good, fair and interesting selection of books.
At CAE Book Groups, choosing books for the list is not a one-person job, but a collaborative effort that includes the CAE Book Group team, feedback from CAE Book Group members (we wouldn’t have heard of Tin Man otherwise!) and recommendations from industry associates. Having multiple readers and inviting opinions makes for a blended list to cater for different types of readers. In a book club setting, this will mean including other members and inviting outside opinions to come up with your longlist of books for the reading year.
Diversify your list
Diversifying your list is a great way to ensure you and your group are reading outside your reading ‘bubble’. It’s a common trap for an individual or group to stay within the boundaries of the safe and familiar, but this means you and your group might be missing out on titles that surprise or challenge you. Diversifying your list won’t just shake up your group’s monthly reading, it can also expand your awareness and discussion topics, prompting you to consider characters and viewpoints from a new perspective.
Consider these questions when choosing a list of titles for your book group:
- Themes: Is there a running theme going through most of them?
- Genres: Is your list leaning towards one genre? Are there any genres that have never been included?
- Characters: Is there a strong majority in a specific gender, race, culture or sexuality?
- Geographic spread: Are you favouring books set in certain locations? Are you lacking in local or international titles?
Popular books don’t necessarily make for lengthy discussion books. Not everyone wants to spend two hours talking about J.K. Rowling’s Muggles in Harry Potter as an allegory for racism, or the depiction of class and culture in Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. While bestsellers can often gear us towards pleasurable reading experiences, it’s also good to look at award winners and literary reviews to get an understanding of the range of books that critics and readers are choosing for their lists. Some well-known and reliable awards include the Miles Franklin Award (AUS), Stella Prize (AUS), Costa Award (UK), Man Booker Prize (UK), Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (US) and the Women’s Prize for Fiction (UK).
Timeless books make for a universal discussion
Choosing a book with timeless themes means different generations and types of readers within your book group can relate to it, and a book that can stand the test of time can be re-read years later for a unique and fresh discussion. Timeless books are often the classics, as they still relate to readers or contemporary issues we face today. Titles such as To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (and later her follow-up novel Go Set a Watchman), Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R Tolkien are a few timeless classics that maintain a strong presence in today’s literary scene.
Jess Zibung is a Melbourne-based writer, editor and the program coordinator for CAE Book Groups. When she is not working at CAE Book Groups, she regularly writes and edits content for CAE Short Courses and reviews for Apple Books. Her essay ‘The Hypocrisy of Hybridity’ is published in the current (Spring 2018) edition of Overland Literary Journal, and her short stories have been published in Pencilled In and Verandah Literary Journal. Jess has also written and edited for various platforms in education and the Australian literary scene.