Selecting Book Discussion Titles

Selecting Book Discussion Titles

I’m frequently asked how I select titles for book discussions. I’ve been leading two book discussion groups at the Woodridge Public Library for over 8 years, with occasional discussions led by my library director, Susan McNeil-Marshall. Leading book discussions has turned out to be very rewarding, but selecting titles continues to be challenging. There are so many books published each year, and even if I limit selections to historical fiction and narrative non-fiction, it’s still a daunting amount of books. Just to make it more fun, I like to challenge the book groups with a variety of titles that don’t fit neatly in those two categories. Sometimes the book group participants have suggestions, and sometimes I get ideas from other librarians. When asked, my book groups tell me that they’re interested in reading books they wouldn’t have found on their own, and that they like to read about other times, other places, and other cultures. When I have a long list of discussible books, I booktalk a variety of titles to each book group and have them vote, but usually I make the selections. Here are some of the places I look for ideas, as well as my own reading log:

Book Discussion Suggestions:
Summer ’15 Reading Group Indie Next List from Indiebound.org, recommendations from independent booksellers. A long, annotated list; very helpful.

Great Group Reads Selections from the Women’s National Book Association.

Websites like ReadingGroupGuides.com

Best Books of the Month Lists:
Monthly: Library Reads
Indie Next
Amazon.com Best of the Month

Best Books of the the Year lists:
Notable Books List from American Library Association Reference and User Services Division
New York Times Notable Books
Booklist, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and Publishers Weekly lists of best books: these are trade publications full of professional book reviews.
EarlyWord.com is a good source of links to best book lists, books being made into movies, and lists of award-winning books. Book awards are a logical place to look for great books, although our groups do not always enjoy reading Pulitzer, Nobel, National Book Award, or Man Booker Prize winners. They often make for lively discussions though, even if we don’t all like the books.

What are other public libraries discussing? I look at their websites, and occasionally talk with other book discussion leaders. Popular selections may be discussed by many libraries in the area, including these recent titles:
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel Brown
Dead Wake by Erik Larson
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Me Before You by JoJo Moyes
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
We haven’t discussed Me Before You although I’ve read it and other titles by Moyes, and our discussion of Henriquez’s book is upcoming. The other titles we’ve already discussed here. Ideas I got recently from looking at other libraries’ selections include these books I haven’t looked at yet:
The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, also suggested by two patrons
Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar, about Chilean miners trapped in an accident in 2010.

Every book discussion group is different, with some focusing on mysteries, non-fiction, science fiction, and “edgy” books, often for discussion in a bar.

Not very helpful lists: Lists that are heavy on classics, older titles, and titles most libraries have already discussed. Here’s one that disappointed me: Sure Bets for Book Discussions from Booklist, December 15, 2015. Eight of the eighteen titles mentioned are more than fifty years old, and only two were published in the last three years.

When I have compiled a list of discussible books, I read book reviews, I look at reader reviews and rankings on Good Reads.com, and I read part of many, many books. Most of them I just read a chapter or two, and quickly decide that they probably won’t work for my book groups. Some books are too long. I will occasionally pick a book of over 400 pages, but attendance tends to be lower. Four years ago, I led a discussion of the historical novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, 532 pages. It won two awards, and I loved it, but only 3 patrons came to the discussion. Non-fiction books can take longer to read, so I try to be especially mindful about the length of those.

I also need to take a look at popularity and availability. I was all set to schedule a discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, when it won the Pulitzer Prize last year and publication of the paperback reprint was postponed a whole year. By the time the hold queues are gone and I can buy several paperback copies, most of the readers who are interested will have had 2 years to read it. And yes, at 531 pages, it’s quite long. And will my book groups be ready for another World War II novel set partly in France? We recently discussed Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland, and many readers love The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, both World War II novels set in France.

What did I pick for this spring, and how?
The Bees by Laline Paull I had read and liked, but didn’t really consider until I looked at the IndieNext list of reading group suggestions. A year in the life of a fictional bee hive, this is a non-traditional selection to discuss.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez has been on my list of discussible books for several months. Recently another librarian shared that it was well-received at her library’s book discussion. Westmont and Elmhurst are also discussing it this spring.
The Distant Marvels by Chantel Acevedo was well-reviewed and the modern Cuban setting was intriguing. I read it, and it’s on the IndieNext List of reading group suggestions.
The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber was a hit at another library, and I’ve never seen another novel about African American homesteaders in the Badlands.
A Simple Murder by Eleanor Kuhns I read a few years ago, and realized that the setting of late 18th Century New England, with an itinerant weaver/detective visiting a Shaker community, would be something new and different.
The Wright Brothers, at 320 pages, is a shorter book by the noted historian/biographer David McCullough. Published in 2015, a paperback will be out in early May. I read it pre-publication, knowing it was a strong possibility for discussion.

I started leading book discussions on a regular basis in September, 2007, as the previous leader was retiring. That fall we discussed:
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, a witty, clever novel told in letters.
The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig, a historical novel set in Montana that was so well-liked that many of us found a new favorite writer. We’ve since discussed his book The Bartender’s Tale.
Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson, a successful discussion of a popular real-life adventure led by librarian Susan.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a very dark and depressing post-apocalyptic novel. Beautiful writing, memorable characters, and deserving of its Pulitzer Prize. Somehow I led two discussions of this title. After the first quarter of 2008, I discontinued the previous discussion leader’s practice of discussing the same title with both groups a couple of months apart. One title, one discussion. Of course, that meant I needed to find more discussible books.
A Year in the World by Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun. I listened to this memoir before selecting it; it didn’t hold up as well on re-reading; not popular with the book group.

For other suggestions, here is a list of discussible books. To search this blog for books we’ve discussed, search under the category Book Discussions.

If you’re in a book group or thinking of starting one, I hope you find some of these suggestions helpful. If you need ideas for your book group, or have suggestions for ours, please leave a comment or stop by the library to chat with me.

Brenda O’Brien



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