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Book Group activities

We often include bits of advice on how to foster discussion about books in our Bookends Newsletter--a monthly email newsletter that focuses on recommendations and information for book groups--and we've collected some of those suggested activities here. If you're interested in receiving these monthly emails, just  sign up for our Bookends Newsletter.


Activites recommended by our staff

To celebrate National Poetry Month (or just because poetry is wonderful), ask each member of your book group to write a haiku from the perspective of one of the characters in the book you are currently reading. When your group convenes each person can share their poem and then the other members of the group have to guess which character the poem's author was trying to channel.

Pick a book that corresponds to a monthly theme. For example, March is Women's History Month and National Hispanic Heritage Month begins in mid-September.

Cook a dish or full-course meal inspired by the book. How about tea and pastries for The Casual Vacancy or trail mix for Wild?

Have each member bring one or two pieces of paper with a quote from the book written on top of each one. Ask them to choose a few lines that were either very meaningful to them or that provoked a strong negative reaction. In the group, have a silent discussion by shuffling the papers and passing them out and leaving the extras in a pile in the middle. Each person should respond to the quote on the piece of paper they received and then exchange it with one of the others in the middle. As papers pass from person to person, the discussion builds and builds. This activity allows everyone an equal opportunity to participate and often provokes commentary that might have otherwise been withheld.

Share the passion while attacking the clutter! Most all of us have piles of books on our "To Be Read" shelf, and while you can resolve to get to them on your own, try asking your book group to read those titles. There's a good reason they caught your attention in the first place, and other members may share your interest. Bring a stack to your group's next meeting and see if anyone takes the bait.

In honor of Women's History month, take some time to focus on the female characters in the book your group is discussing. Consider the story or the events from their perspective and discuss their characters actions and effect on the overall story line. If your reading choice is a work of fiction, discuss the choices the author made in constructing these characters and the ways in which gender plays a role in the story. If your choice is a work on nonfiction, discuss your reactions to the women who are included. Would you want to meet them? Do you think they would be pleased with the way the author portrayed them? What kinds of influence did they have on the author? How was the story affected by the author's own gender?

Great books can be made even better when you know more about the author's background. Pick a member of your group to do some research on your upcoming book selection and the author who wrote it. This research could involve a short author biography, a transcript of an interview with the author, or a thought-provoking review of the book. Go the extra step and prepare discussion questions that use the information unearthed in the research to look at this book in new ways.

Summer is a great time to escape the heat by catching a mid-afternoon movie. Why not do it with your book group? Check out a movie adaptation that's currently in theaters; alternately, you could choose an older book/movie combo and rent the DVD: East of Eden (John Steinbeck), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (Michael Chabon), Everything Is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer), to name a few.

The inevitable difference between a book and a movie is ripe with controversy: Did the characters look as you expected them to? Did the movie hit the mark and adequately represent the movie? Beyond deciding whether the movie was good/bad and how it differs from the book (in plot, characters, etc.), you can get into even more in-depth questions: Did you feel the same when you inhabited the book as you did in the movie? What did the filmmaker/author do to evoke that feeling? How did the movie adaptation adjust to accommodate a two-hour space of time, when reading a book takes much longer? What about movies allows for more information to be communicated in less time? In general, what benefits and drawbacks does each format have?

Here's a great way to mix up your book group picks: choose a non-fiction title from someone who usually writes fiction, and read one of their fiction titles as well. There are a lot of great discussion questions built into such a pairing: How do we differentiate fiction from non-fiction? What about when the distinction gets fuzzier, as with historical fiction or creative non-fiction? How do we grant authority to non-fiction, and certain genres of non-fiction more than others? What can fiction teach us?

Book suggestions include:

  • Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith
  • Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon
  • Truth & Beauty, Ann Patchett
  • Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Talking About Detective Fiction, PD James
  • Travels With Charley or Once There Was a War, John Steinbeck

Celebrate summer by choosing an outdoor setting for one of your book groups meetings. Pick a park, pack a picnic, and don't forget your favorite hat. If you're so inclined, pick a book that goes great outdoors: step into the world of nature writing, read a travelog, or embrace a work of fiction that focuses on nature. Whatever you choose, pay special attention to the role nature plays in the book. How do you, as the reader, experience the natural world in the book? What does it represent to the characters in the book? How does it affect the plot line? What characteristics would you ascribe to it? Would you want to experience it yourself?

This is a reading group activity that can be loads of fun but needs to be planned ahead of time. We never approach a book with a totally blank mind. The cover art, the description on the back, things we've heard word of mouth, and publisher marketing all influence our impression of the book before we even read the first sentence. This activity asks book group members to explore their perceptions of the book before reading it, at some set point in the middle, and after they've completed it.

After purchasing the book but before starting it, each person should take a few minutes to make some predictions. What will the book be about? Who will the main characters be? Where will the book take place? What kind of conflict or plot will be involved? Why did the author write this book? Are you going to like it? Are you going to learn from it? What do you already know about the ending? What other predictions can you make?

At some point in the middle, revisit these questions and your answers to them. How have your predictions played out? Ask yourself similar questions about the second half of the book. What are the important relationships? What are the points of contention? How do you see this book ending? Will you be satisfied with your experience?

After finishing the book, take a few minutes to write and reflect on these predictions. In what ways were you surprised by the book? In what ways were your predictions confirmed?

In your book group, discuss these three stages of engagement. See how the predictions compared to each other and what aspects of the book different people focused on. Is there anything the group would change about the marketing of the book? The description on the back? What would you tell someone who has yet to read it?