How Book Clubs Can Enhance Your Reading Experience

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Our February theme continues: “For the love of books”

Many years ago, I wandered into my favorite local bookstore called Transitions Bookplace & Café (which sadly, has since shut down) where they were hosting a book discussion meeting. I can’t recall what book they were discussing – something about mental health and relationships, I think – but the discussion drew nearly 50 people, far more than the store management anticipated. The group leader had difficulty keeping the conversation on track, and in fact, one particular man monopolized the conversation by talking about his own personal troubles. With so many people in the room, it was difficult to hear what individuals were saying. The group leader tried on several occasions to get the discussion back on track and to get more people involved in the conversation. Out of frustration, I finally left.

Other friends of mine have had more positive experiences with book groups. The key is to keep the group small, at least eight members and no more than 15, say experts, so it will be much easier to manage the discussion.

Starting a book discussion group can seem like a daunting task. Sometimes it’s better to simply join one. Whether you start a club or join one, think about all the different ways a book club can enrich your life and your reading experience. In addition to providing a means for socializing, a book discussion group enables you to:

* Learn about new authors.
Joining a book club opens up opportunities to read works from authors you may never have heard of. Or maybe you have heard of them but never read anything by them previously.

* Become familiar with different genres outside of your own interest. For example, if you don’t usually read nonfiction books, book club members may decide as a group to read two or three nonfiction books per year. As long as you’re open-minded about reading non-fiction, the experience can broaden your literary knowledge.

* Hear and discuss opinions and perspectives from other members. When you give everyone a chance to express their opinion, you learn to be more comfortable discussing complex and controversial subjects. Hopefully, you also learn to be more patient to give each member a chance to speak. You learn to listen, and though you may not agree with others’ opinions, you hopefully learn to respect their differences.

* Improve your capacity for literary analysis. When you’re part of a book club, you read books differently with an eye on discussion points. You might still enjoy the book, but you’re not reading just for pleasure anymore. You may also take notes while you read so you can prepare to discuss the book more thoroughly. It forces you to think more critically.

* Improve your ability to articulate ideas. Book discussion groups provide an outlet to test out ideas and formulate opinions. Book worms aren’t necessarily comfortable speaking their minds or sharing opinions. But with practice, more shy types can feel more confident in presenting their views in what they perceive to be a safer environment.

There are numerous sources online to help plan and participate in book discussion groups. Bookbrowse.com offers advice for starting a group, leading meetings and choosing books to read. The American Library Association offers tips for managing a book discussion group and provides some suggested questions in instances where there is no discussion guide. Also check out Bookmovement.com, which helps book clubs organize their book reading lists, maintain contact with their group members, and help clubs learn what other groups are reading. Reading Group Guides, a sister site to the Book Reporter, provides their own review guides for current releases which you can access by book title, author name or by genre.

With so many resources available and so many books to read, you’ll never run out of topics for discussion for your book group.

The key to a beneficial experience is to commit to the group experience. Going just for the food, drinks and socializing isn’t enough. Be on time, show up and stay engaged. Most important, be open to reading different authors and genres, participate in the discussions, and enjoy the camaraderie with friends over a shared love of books.

Readers: Are you involved with a book discussion group? What has been your experience?

Six Writing Causes You Should Support on Giving Tuesday

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As the Christmas holiday season approaches, take a moment to think about the organizations that do a lot a good in your community. As writers and communicators, the nonprofit groups that specialize in promoting literacy and the creative arts should be topmost in our minds. Without the written word, without music or art or dance, where would we all be?

In support of Giving Tuesday, think about how you support literacy and creative arts in your own community. Don’t just think with your purse or wallet either. Think of your time, energy and creative ideas that you can give. How can you better support these organizations? Remember, your volunteer hours mean as much as donated goods or cash.

Below are a few types of nonprofit groups worthy of support on this Giving Tuesday. Remember, giving happens not just today, but every day throughout the year.

Adult Literacy programs
Literacy is for life. If you know how to read and write, it is assumed that those skills can take you far in life. But many U.S. adults fall far behind in literacy.

An April 2017 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that 32 million adults, or 14 percent of the U.S. population, cannot read. About 21 percent of adults read below the fifth grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read (which begs the question: How are they graduating from high school if they can’t read?)

Enter literacy organizations, which aid adults, children and entire families in building their reading and writing skills. Check out 826 National and the National Literacy Directory for a literacy organization near you.

Libraries
Specialty libraries with rare collections often have difficulty acquiring additional reading materials and frequently have difficulty publicizing the work they do. Think of places like the Newberry Library in Chicago with its emphasis on history and research.

Many libraries don’t have the resources to purchase new books either. For example, check out the American Library Association’s guide to book donation programs, which lists libraries that need books to fill their shelves.

Other nonprofit groups accept book donations for resale purposes. From the proceeds of the sale of these donated books, they can fund reading and writing education programs in underserved communities. Check out organizations such as Turning the Page/Carpe Librum Bookstore and Open Books, which serve these purposes in the Chicago area. Similar organizations may be located near you.

Nonprofit writing centers
According to a recent article at Bustle, not everyone is cut out for a university MFA program. But if you want to learn to write and write well, but not necessarily want to earn a MFA, where do you go? The answer is a non-profit writing center, such as Grub Street in Boston or Story Studio in Chicago. For poets, there’s also the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona.

But these organizations can’t operate on their own. That’s where you come in. Donations are needed to purchase classroom materials, cover operating costs and assist with program planning. Not only are these organizations great places to develop your writing skills, they are terrific places for networking and community building. They are worthy of your support in more ways than one.

Museums
Without museums, our connection to our history and culture would be lost, no matter where we come from. Whether it’s a museum of art (The Art Institute of Chicago), writing (American Writers Museum), or science (Shedd Aquarium), museums give us a place to explore, to honor our history while imagining possibilities for the future.

Reading and writing groups for Incarcerated Individuals
Men and women who are serving time often do not have access to books or writing materials, often due to limited resources and funds in the prison system. Non-profit groups like Chicago Books to Women in Prison (which I have volunteered with for the past two years) and the Women’s Book Project in Minneapolis, provide free access to everything from fiction and nonfiction books of all genres, GED study materials, blank composition books, dictionaries, Bibles and career development materials.  There are numerous other organizations dedicated to helping the incarcerated connect with books and writing materials. Pen America is another organization worth checking out for writing programs for the incarcerated.

Arts foundations
Think beyond just books and writing programs. Thinks of the arts too. Consider donations to specialty organizations, such as groups that keep alive the history and legacy of silent films such as the Silent Film Society of Chicago. There are numerous local theater groups, dance companies and music schools that can benefit from your volunteer time. Because they all support the development of artists in various fields, you’re also supporting the development of story tellers in different artistic fields.

By giving to any one of these organizations, you are helping numerous individuals achieve their dreams – to read, to write, to share stories and to communicate with others. And those are causes worthy of your contributions.

ALA Banned Books Week 2018 Calls for Reader Activism to End Censorship

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Anyone who loves books and loves reading will appreciate the advocacy effort being led by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom this week.

Banned Books Week (Sept 23-29) is an initiative that began in 1982 that brings together entire book communities – librarians, journalists, editors, teachers, writers and publishers, and of course, readers – to show support or the freedom to seek and express ideas.

This year, Banned Books Week focuses on author and reader activism. Readers are encouraged to get involved in one or several programs to fight censorship, particularly of the books that are frequently targeted with removal or restricted access in libraries and schools. Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship and the benefits of unrestricted reading.

Here are a few ways you can get involved:

Dear Banned Author Campaign
This letter-writing campaign encourages readers to write to, tweet or email authors whose works have been banned or challenged and share with them how their stories have affected them. Dear Banned Author attempts to raise awareness of books that are threatened with censorship and generates discussions about the essential access to library materials. Readers are invited to share their stories online and join the conversation using the hashtags #DearBannedAuthor and #BannedBooksWeek.

Virtual Banned Read-Out
Since the inception of Banned Books Week in 1982, libraries and bookstores across the country have hosted local read-outs – continuous readings of banned and challenged books. Banned authors have also participated, including Judy Blume among others.

Readers can participate by posting a video of themselves on YouTube reading from a banned book or talking about censorship. To submit a read-out video on YouTube, visit the ALA website. If you’re a bit camera shy, choose one of the books from the banned lists and read it this week on your own – without cameras. Some previously banned and challenged books include The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and more recently George by Alex Gino and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. The ALA has lists of banned and challenged books on their website, http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks.

There are other ways to show your support. Check out ALA’s Banned Books Week website to learn more.

As readers, writers and communicators, this is an issue we all need to get behind.