Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Forum: The Ingredients of a Good Book Discussion

This week, Edward Champion hosted an online roundtable discussion of Dana Spiotta's new rock novel, Stone Arabia (which sounds fantastic by the way and I am eager to read it).

In the five part series, the participants, which included Champion, Sarah Weinman, Levi Asher, and Diane and others, wrote about the book in turn, sometimes responding to each other, sometimes not. 

In all, it was a compelling, insightful read, but I am not sure, in the end, that I would call it a discussion, but more like analytical turn-taking. This is not an indictment of the project; I would gladly read another such document about a contemporary novel. 

In addition to getting me interested in the novel at hand, this experiment got me thinking about the structure of online book discussions. There are all sorts of them happening online, from read-a-longs to challenges to book clubs, to forums, and so forth. And while I haven't tried every available format, one thing is clear to me from those that I have tried: none of them comes close to a old-fashioned, in-person, book discussion.

My instinct is to blame the medium--that there's something irreplaceable about being in the same room with someone, something in the more subtle ebb-and-flow of face-to-face interaction that lends itself to intimacy, investigation, and encouragement. 

When I think of the best discussions I've ever had about books, though, I'm not sure it's about physical proximity but about shared experience; there's something about knowing the people you are discussing a book with. But, there's something else that is harder to define that makes for illuminating, sustaining book talk, something much harder to define.

So, here's my question: what's the best book discussion you've ever had? What made it so great? How does it compare to online book discussion (or was it online)? What do you think the qualities of a good book discussion are? 


  1. I'll be very interested in the responses you get to this one. I often think of my own book discussions as being mostly limited to online discussion, and some of those have been really excellent. Maybe it's not always a "conversation," but some group reads and readalongs have been really productive for me (e.g., the one Amateur Reader and I did of Clarel last year).

    But there is still something about the in-person discussion, and in my case the best ones of those I have are with my boyfriend. He hasn't read a lot of what I read, but I almost always discuss books with him before blogging about them and we have great talks about them. And when he has read the book, which has been the case for several lately, it's that much more interesting. How well we know each other is definitely a factor--an enormous amount of groundwork is laid for us to bring in other ideas that we've talked about at various points, other things we've experienced together, etc. And on top of that it's the kind of discussion that we both see as, I don't know, some kind of "relationship booster," where we actually talk about something, not just what we're going to have for dinner tonight or who's going to clean the bathroom next.

    Long comment, and I guess I still haven't gotten to what really "made it so great." Shared experience, deep understanding of each other's ideas about fiction, art, life, etc., and the ability to actually get excited and make points quickly and in real time to bring in more pieces of evidence, questions, etc., does help too.

  2. I think what makes it great is the amount of actual discussion that goes on. Rather than just each talking the participants have to respond to each other, there has to be some back and forth, there has to be some give and take. I think online loses out on this a bit but that it can still be done. Comments are good for this, as are the back and forth posts on blogs or discussions through emails posted with reviews. 

  3. The best online book discussions, it seems, occur in the comments section of these amateur book blogs. Exhibit A for that, I think, was your ongoing conversation (read as: increasingly intense argument) about the difference between reaction and review on a blog. But the problem with the blog discussions is that folks will mostly side with the blogger and gang up on a dissenting commenter. So it's not a true exchange of ideas.

    The best book discussions, I agree, are in person. And the best discussions I've had are impromptu and after a drink or two, especially with someone who I've just met and who I didn't know was a reader - slowly probing each others defenses and bodies of knowledge. To me, that's great fun. (Probing bodies... Heh he. Heh he.) The most important characteristic of a good book discussion: an arguable point. Agreement is great, but not nearly as interesting. I've had some great in-person conversations about Life of Pi - and what it really meant - as one example. Because religion's involved there, as well as literature, there are some strongly held and rather charged opinions. And that makes discussion all the more fun.


  4. Back and forth is right. One thing that hinders this in most online venues is that it is so easy for delayed responses to suck the oxygen out of a conversation. It seems to me that only the most controversial topics can sustain an extended discussion. Conversely, it my experience it is the discussion of seemingly minor and/or more subtle points that tend to be the most generative of a quality discussion 

  5. That's a good point--people tend to side with the blogger. This is understandable, since they are readers of that blog and probably already align themselves with it. 

    An arguable point--yes. Or at least something that needs resolution (ambiguity, mystery, ambivalence). Heated agreement or disagreement tends not to be that interesting. 

  6. Very interesting question. My blogging partner and I frequently do discussion posts--we take turns working on the post and usually respond to each other's previous thoughts. I think they probably do read like "analytical turn-taking" at times; however, it's interesting how the process of writing together causes the post to go in different directions from where it would if we were to write alone. But in person, our (too rare) in-person discussions are even more fruitful because we have shared background that we don't have to explain for an outside audience.

    I find discussions that are merely answering shared sets of questions to be less interesting and fruitful. As Amy says, some sort of back and forth is essential.

    I have seen some great discussions in comment threads on books, but I think it takes people being willing to ask serious questions and even disagree. I think sometimes in an effort not to be contentious, we let all disagreements boil down to de gustibus non est disputandum, when maybe there's a more substantive difference of opinion worth talking about. (Of course, despite saying that, I don't want the culture of book blogging to get all contentious, just willing to pose alternative views that go beyond personal taste.)

  7. The reason, I believe, that book discussion or any discussion for that matter, are better in person is because on-line you do not get the tone of the commentator. Whether it is serous, a joke, sarcastic or just plain mean.

    You, the reader, interpret those comments in your own mind - not how the writer intended them to be interpreted.

    Granted, sometimes that's a blessing. One has to think about what he/she says before pressing [submit] and make sure that their words actually say what they meant.

  8. I 2nd the couple of drinks.

  9. I'm planning on trying to set up an online book group via Google+ hangouts, we'll see how it goes but I imagine most of the group will know each other even though we live all over the place. Webcams might make it a bit more like a real book group.

    The best discussions at my in person group are always when we have differing opinions.

  10. Classroom experiences aside (because I think the level of intimacy that develops in a good class can't really be replicated), the best book discussions I have had in recent memory are my bi-weekly podcast recordings for Bookrageous. The three of us know each other, very well, and in the course of talking about books and what books do in our lives together for two hours every other week, we've become even closer. And there's something about that, about knowing that the people who are recommending books to you *really* understand you, and see your strengths and weaknesses, and can tell you about books that will be right up your alley and books that they think you *should* read to expand yourself (even if you maybe don't think you want to read them initially) is incredibly valuable.

    Obviously, I also love online book discussion, but I agree that nothing beats face-to-face (or voice-to-voice). I'm hopeful that Google+ hangouts will add to the ability to do this online.

  11. Some of the disagree-into-contentiousness devolvement seems to be a symptom of the difficulty of reading tone in print. Something that is meant as a disagreement can easily be read as an attack (I've had this happen several times). In person, a probing question or dissent can be softened with tone and non-verbal communication, stemming the rush to defense. 

  12. It is true that you can develop an idea more completely before hitting "enter" but I wonder if there isn't something to the more free-form nature of unchecked discussion that makes in-person discussion an order of magnitude more interesting. 

  13. Ah, video book discussions seem like a really good idea! This will answer the question about non-verbal/tone relatively well. Still will be interesting to see if people who don't know each other can replicate somewhat the discussions between people who do (ie, is this a technical problem or an experiential one).

  14. It would cool to have a digital version on the screen that the members of the discussion can highlight/flip through for the others while everyone is chatting. Could be interesting. 

  15. To me a passion for thoughtful reading is the key to a good book discussion, online or otherwise.  I've had in person book "discussions" with people who've read the same books I have, and we never get past "I liked it/I hated it", because the person I'm discussing with never really thought about the book past "I liked it/I hated it".  Some of the best book discussions I've had have actually been with a 17 year old member of the youth group I'm an adviser for.  Aside from being a remarkably mature 17 year old, he is passionate about books, and is one of the more reflective, thoughtful readers I know.  I care less about whether the person can throw around literary jargon and more about whether they can articulate a thought/idea/feeling they had about a book with a well-thought out argument.