You’re in a book club and everyone has gathered at the planned day and time. If you liked the book you read, the easiest thing to do is to listen to other people talk about the things they liked in the book. The next easiest thing is to talk about the things you liked. All of these ‘likes’ will typically be plot centered. That is, you may find your discussion focusing on the events that take place in the story possibly leaving out a lot of valuable opportunities to explore new territory.
So, what’s in a discussion other than the events that unfolded in the story? There can be a lot of different things like ideas that are advocated in the story, questions the characters raise about their life and their community, assumptions about culture given the setting in which the story takes place, observations that echo in your mind , and evaluations of the author’s technique. Books can have a lot to do with how people understand the human experience. When you think about discussing in these terms rather than re-living the events of the book with your friends, you’ll find yourself breaking new ground.
Whenever I teach a literature course, I always tell my students this simple truth. Every author has a story to tell. It’s not just the story he crafts in the book. It can also be a story of personal experience. And what does this mean to you? It can help you understand the relevance of one person’s experience and how it may relate to your own. A good novel is a study in human dramas. You learn more about humanity than you realize. And as you work through the problems and issues of people who populate these books, you learn to work through your own issues. In short, you are making connections between the story and ‘real life’
There are several different approaches to reading and discussion that may lead to more meaningful conversation. Let’s call these different approaches ‘starting points’. Here are two:
Starting from Gender: This would be reading and discussing book focusing either on the male or female experience. For example, if you were reading a novel by Edith Wharton which would undoubtedly focus on a female lead character, as you read, you would think about that character’s experience in a male dominated society. You would discuss how she was able to function for the better or worse, how her behavior may have been driven by her circumstances, how her story may have been different had she lived in a more equitable society.
Starting from Psychology: This would be reading and discussing a book focusing on the psychology of the lead characters and how it affects their behavior in the story. In other words, what is going on in the mind of these characters that would affect their actions toward other people, their successes or failures, their ability to function from day to day? For example, if you were reading a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, it would undoubtedly focus on a male lead character. Fitzgerald’s male characters almost always have internal conflicts. These internalized issues drive the character’s behavior which in turn shapes the story. Your discussion could focus on how different his life would have been had those issues not existed?
These ‘starting points’ are what is called critical theory or literary criticism. I will not be using these words in the future, nor will I pummel you with other dry technical language. But I will share what I know in plain clear language that will hopefully enhance your book club experience.
Look forward to more ‘starting points’, ways to select books, and my personal recommendations for classic and contemporary novels.