in rural Paris, Iowa, and Wordpress

Online Reading Groups

Are you considering joining an online reading group? Allow me to suggest that you investigate and consider it carefully. Upon investigation you may find that the group is just that, communal reading sessions in which the members simply reassure each other that they are reading the same book at the same time and nothing else. That may fit your purposes perfectly. A reading group in this sense is certainly not an onerous thing.

The rub comes if the group makes a pretense of actually discussing books that the members all read in anticipation of that discussion. This may seem to fit your purposes better. Indeed, discussion of books with others may have been something that you have craved. Consider this truth, however. Participation in a book discussion group will be a profitable, rewarding use of your time only to the extent that you and the other members of that group are willing to expend effort, that is, to work at it. Very few people, particularly in the United States of America, have the time or the sustainable inclination for that work after their first ever so brief fit of enthusiasm. Therefore, be commitment shy. Exercise the benefit of any doubt in favor of not participating in such a group.

I know nothing about face-to-face book discussion groups. I write here of online book discussion groups wherein the subjects are novels. Here is only a part of what I call the “It Never Fails To Happen List” organized with bullet points–because I am ever so fond of bullet points:

  • At the top of my list is the practice of posting lists. This is a huge pastime in online book discussion groups. “My Ten Favorite Novels.” “Books On My Nightstand.” Etcetera. Etcetera. Seldom does one encounter a word about the substance of any of those titles by way of explanation as to why the reader included any of them in some list.
  • Closely related to that is the common practice of simply trading titles, titles by a particularly favored author for example, but again without comment upon the substance of any book bearing one of those titles.
  • Many are far more interested in running up the number of books that they have read than in any discussion of a single one of those books.
  • Worse yet is the practice of trading titles in the category of “To Be Read.” It is especially difficult for me to generate a lot of interest in what title a contributor intends to read but has not yet read.
  • Discussions of movies based upon books tend to infiltrate the book discussions relentlessly. “What actor would YOU have cast as the English patient?”

Now let us turn to that most evolved of the species, the book discussion group in which the members chose a book that they shall all read and determine that at a designated time in the future, they will discuss it.

  • The discussion will soon devolve either into chaos or into nothingness without a strong moderator in charge. Skilled moderators are hard to come by in online book discussion groups. My own theory is that those people who would be the best moderators are precisely those same people who have no interest in doing so. It is usually someone who has no idea what they are getting into who initiates a book discussion group and ipso facto becomes its moderator.
  • It is extremely difficult to keep online book discussions on topic. People digress. A discussion of “My Secret Garden” will soon degenerate into exchanging contributions relating to the readers’ own flower gardens and how they are coming along.
  • If there are participants in a real discussion who take their books and authors seriously, it more difficult to keep the discussion civil than it is in any other kind of discussion group in my experience, politically oriented groups included.
  • Women tend to predominate in number in book discussion groups. I shall risk a general statement myself here and say that men and women approach discussion of books differently. Men and women need to be patient with each other because of this. If they are patient, they will learn something from each other. The catch here is that men and women tend not to be patient with each other when it comes to books.
  • Rewarding and enjoyable book discussion groups that endure have their own pitfalls. One of those pitfalls is that some few participates, otherwise tolerably married to non-participates, will develop a yen to meet each other in person and have love affairs, considering this more acceptable than the usual because it all arose out of a discussion of books.
  • There are always those present with less developed “listening skills” than others.
  • There are readers who are comfortable with ambiguity in an author’s work, and there are those for whom ambiguity is an unforgivable sin. These readers have difficulty communicating—to the extent that there is ever any effort to communicate–during a discussion of a book.
  • Regarding the need for expending effort that I mentioned above, there is usually a dirth of any specific references to a piece of text from a particular book under discussion along with an attempt to analyze that text substantively, stylistically, or any other way. The most general observations dominate with nary a reference to any pieces of text in support of those general observations. Those general observations are generally worthless.
  • A thing closely related to that. I readily concede and adamantly agree that an online book discussion group is not a college seminar. It is a social activity. More often than not, however, the social aspect of book discussion groups comes to predominate over the discussion of books, if any book discussion survives at all. Why? Because that is easier. But Facebook makes it even easier.
  • To nominate a book for discussion that one has not yet read (a book on your “To Be Read” list) with the intention to read it in anticipation of the discussion is a serious mistake. I know because I have done it. The better practice is to nominate a book that one has already read.
  • Last, there are deep divides among readers of novels. Not surprisingly, the deepest divide is the most important. It is too simplistic to call it the divide between readers of classics and readers of popular contemporary fiction. I would describe that divide this way. There are those for whom the only criterion for their choice of fiction is pure and light “entertainment value.” Then there are those for whom “entertainment value” ranks below other criteria in their choice of fiction. I am not casting aspersions on those who inhabit either side of this divide, but these two groups need to be in two different discussion groups.

Will I myself ever participate in an online discussion of a novel again? It is a question I ask myself. I never say never.

5 Responses to “Online Reading Groups”

  1. Grace

    I’m a fan of blog readalongs. Generally we pick a book and have someone send out discussion questions each week, and everyone posts answers and visits each others’ blogs and comments. I’ve had some great book discussions that way, and it always makes me think about aspects of a book that I’d have otherwise taken for granted.

    • StephenBrassawe

      I am a fan, too, Grace, albeit at times a disgruntled one. I have been doing it off and on since I purchased my first computer in 1993. Windows 3.2, Bulletin Boards, and a turtle slow dial-up connection in those days. I am quite taken with this format that you describe. It seems to me that it would address all the little glitches that I have grumbled about above. Almost all anyway.

  2. michel pellerin

    I was involved in many kind of groups in my life and I am quite suspicious regarding these discussions online. If I use my psychologist eye, I can say that there is a «group effect on the opinion of each participants.

  3. mister anchovy

    I rarely mess with online reading groups. I’m not so good with organized social activities, even when they simply involve talking about books. Part of the problem is that I share an annoying trait with the rest of my family-we much prefer talking than listening. The other problem is that I don’t like to commit to completing a book. What if I don’t like it? I would feel I had to finish it because I was committed to the discussion. What if I really didn’t want to finish? In the absence of an online reading group I can quietly leave the book sitting on the end table, a quarter read, until it gathers dust. Then after a suitable period, I can simply make the book disappear.

    • StephenBrassawe

      The freedom not to finish a book is one of the great freedoms that we enjoy as Americans, mr. anchovy. Your point is well taken.


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