Book Group Prep: What We’re All Reading

This next Monday, we’ll all participate in a variety of different reading discussions during our class time. Each pair (and one trio) of students picked out a particular short piece of literature to use as the basis for discussion. Some of my thoughts regarding those readings (and related reflections on specific challenges or issues in book groups) follow:

  • Esti & Laura A. chose a webcomic called “All the Books in the World… Except One.” Although it was a short comic, it made me think about a lot of things: How books-as-objects can be valuable beyond just text, how personalization and memory can make books more valuable, and how what we choose to collect (hoard!) and value provides clues as to our own emotional needs, memories and connections. This, of course means that I’m curious what personal stories SI students and practicing librarians have about books or information sharing!
  • Ashley & Mary chose something very different in tone and topic, a piece from the Federalist Papers. I have to admit that my own emotional baggage from High School social studies class made me hesitant to (re)read this. The largest point that I was really able to take from this is just that early on in our development as a country — when we were just forming our documents and ideas about just what this government/arrangement of power might be — there were many difficult tensions that Hamilton and others were attempting to balance. I look forward to discussion of this, just because I feel like it will help get me beyond my previous baggage and push me to think more about the meat of the text.
  • Meggan & Kelly chose a short story by one of my favorite authors, Amy Hempel, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” I had read this story as part of a collection a few years ago, and I think it made me cry then, but it kind of destroyed me this time, as only Hempel and Lorrie Moore seem able to do to me. This was the first story other than our own group’s pick, that I read in the cluster of stories that had to do with death and loss and grief, and it made me realize very acutely that although it is a beautifully written story, with so much I could talk about in a group related to its structure and phrasing and writing, I feel too emotional to feel comfortable discussing this story in a public setting.I am thankful, though, to have a realization about how and why a story might simply strike too close to a book group member’s sensitive territory. It’s probably hard to anticipate all of the ways in which this could happen in a reading and discussion group, but it’s important to consider, particularly in relation to a few points that came up last week about a book discussion group not being a support group and vice versa! Writing is inevitably going to strike strong emotional chords with people, though — so how can we honor that while still keeping the focus on the book? Part of it probably has to do with group members being aware of their own boundaries and comfort zones.
  • Although Leigh & Rebecca’s choice, “The Blind Spot” dealt with death, and specifically murder, the characters and tone made it easy for me to detach and I also felt like I began to anticipate what happened at the end, as I got closer. After reading this story, I was actually most intrigued by how Leigh and Rebecca came across this story, and why in particular they decided upon it for discussion. I don’t know if that’s really important to discuss the work, though — I suppose we might have the opportunity to ask those sorts of questions if our discussion is less of a Socratic Seminar and more of a general book group/club.
  • Terence & Xin chose Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (pp 20-25, UM login required for the link). Although it dealt with suicide, I had read the story multiple times before, and so it didn’t hit me as emotional, except for the actual mid-part of the story which actually feels somewhat joyful (the hunt for bananafish). I haven’t talked about any Salinger in a while, and so I look forward to the discussion of this story. The fact that I had previously read this story a few times also makes me think about how a facilitator or teacher might address having that happen with an assigned/class reading. It’s probably pretty common for one or two students to have read a particular title before a class reads it together, but how do teachers account for that and deal with it. Are those students still engaged in discussion, or does their prior familiarity mean that they sometimes lose interest or let their attention wander?
  • Our own group’s pick was “Murder and Suicide, Respectively” (pp 188-192) which, as you can tell from the title, also deals with death (what a morbid group we were!) but it’s mainly the death of lab animals, in a much more detached, scientific way. It uses the idea of death and its prediction as a way to get as some intriguing questions about predetermination, agency/free-will and time.

Although I know that each reading gets a separate discussion, the overarching themes of death and mortality make me reconsider the idea of “theme” book discussion groups that we talked about last week. I’m curious to see if we end up bringing up previous pieces of reading in discussion of other stories!

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