Bad book group choices?

The BookDepository

When I was researching titles to add to my recent 101 Book Group Choices post I was forced to think hard about which books created good discussions. I found this article about writing for book groups by Amanda Ross (famous for choosing books for Richard and Judy and now The TV Book Club) but am not sure that this advice is different from that given to any author.  It sounds as though she is just describing a good book; one which is original and has a great plot.

Is there any difference between a good book and a good book club choice? 

Are there any fantastic books which make terrible book club choices?

Photo by Horia Varlan, Flickr

When I was compiling my list of books I was trying to include books which contained moral issues which are often thought provoking and in theory promote discussion, but in my book group discussion of the moral issues hasn’t occurred and I have a feeling that it could create argument rather than discussion in a lot of groups. I find talking about the characters more interesting than discussing the pros/cons of abortion, euthanasia or other hotly debated topics.

Should book group choices contain moral issues?



Every single one of my book group’s discussions has been enjoyable. Some have been slightly more successful than others, but I sometimes wonder if it really matters what book is chosen – I think we could talk about any book. That may be because half of us are book bloggers with an extreme passion for books, or perhaps we just haven’t come across a bad book group choice yet.

Is it possible to chose a bad book, or can people who are passionate about books create a good discussion whatever is chosen?

Which books didn’t work for your book club? Why?

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  1. Rachel says:

    Interesting questions, Jackie!

    With our book group our main criteria is that the book be easy to get hold of and be fairly short so we all have time to read it.

    I think a very complicated or dull book would be a bad choice, as if people don’t understand the plot or find it boring and don’t finish it, you won’t get much discussion. Also a very long book that people struggled to finish in time wouldn’t be a good choice I don’t think. All of the books we have read so far have been very different, and people have loved, hated or been indifferent to them, but we’ve got good discussion out of all of them regardless of people’s feelings, as they have their reasons as to why they feel the way they feel. We get some good debate too, especially if there’s people who hate the book and people who absolutely love it and can’t understand why people would hate it!

    Personally I would steer clear of moral issue books for fear of getting totally off topic and offending people. Book Club should be as neutral and comfortable an environment for people as possible and bringing ethics and politics into the mix can ruin that cosy atmosphere.

    1. Jackie says:

      I actually think that complicated books are perfect book group choices – as long as everyone is interested in reading the book. I think that the more complex books will often create the most rewarding discussions as different people will pick up on different things and everyone will come away with a greater appreiciation of the book. It is no good if it is so complex that people abandon it though, so I guess it would have to be a specialised book group to do that.

      I was worried about choosing long books for the book group, but I think we managed Wind-up Bird Chronicle, so perhaps that isn’t a criteria either? Although I admit to liking shorter choices!

  2. My book group has definitely stumbled when it’s come to longer books: Wolf Hall was only read by one of the eight members (I’ll give you one guess who that was). The timing of the choice has also been significant: Shake Hands with the Devil, a memoir of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, was the December pick – it’s a depressing read at the best of times and, not altogether surprisingly, most members didn’t even start it, choosing to enjoy the festive spirit rather than read about genocide and depression.

    My book group is composed of eager, but not necessarily devoted readers. Work, family, and other hobbies take up a lot of their time, so shorter books work best for us and we’ve had great success with The Life of Pi, The Gargoyle (which I hated, but certainly prompted a good discussion) and Bel Canto.

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, I can see why Wolf Hall woudn’t make a good choice – I didn’t manage to finish it either!

      The timing of a choice is also a good point. I hadn’t really thought about that, but then I don’t have a problem with reading depressing books whatever the time of year. The Amanda Ross article recommends avoiding books about war, but I’m not sure I agree – perhaps I just lack proper emotion!

  3. JoAnn says:

    Longer books tend to be a downfall for my group, too. One thing we have learned is to stay away from is a plot-driven mystery/page turner…. usually not much for discussion there.

    1. Jackie says:

      JoAnn, It seems to be a fine balance – too simple and there is nothing to discuss, too long and people don’t finish. Perhaps choosing a book club choice is as hard as I imagined it to be!

  4. Simon S says:

    Intersting question. Riverside Readers being my second long standing book group I dont think there are bad choices because any book can be discussed if people love it or loathe it you can talk about it. The only time I have noticed any books being more difficult to discuss are when most of a group is on the fence about it, they didnt hate it or love it.

    I do think its also down to the group and we are lucky as all members of the Riverside Readers (regardless of blogging) are passionate about books and so we always have lots to say be they good or bad or even indifferent which is lovely.

    1. Jackie says:

      Simon, I think we are very lucky to have such a great group of people. It seems as though other groups have many more problems. It would be interesting to see how we cope with one of the books people here are suggesting make terrible choices. I wonder if we could make an intersting discussion out of it?

      1. Do you know what… I think we could, thats how much faith I have in the group. Hee hee!

  5. Care says:

    FABULOUS question! Even though our club has met for one year now, we are still figuring out what makes good discussion. We have such a mix of motivation to read and I hope we can get to more critical analysis someday.

    1. Jackie says:

      Care, I think it must be hard if most of the members of your group only read one or two books a month. Trying to persuade them to make it the book group’s choice must be hard. I guess you have to pick something really interesting to tempt them. I look forward to reading your analysis one day!

  6. Amanda says:

    We discuss moral dilemmas all the time in my book group. I think that has more to do with the group than the book. Is your group one that can discuss without arguing? Can they agree to disagree?

    I’ve found that the worst books are actually ones that have very little discussable content. Like for instance, we once read Persuasion by Jane Austen in my group. Of course, just about everyone love it, but sadly Austen has a very one-track mind. She briefly touched on the role of women and class structure, but that’s about all. Our discussion barely stretched to 20 mins and I found myself trying to figure out how to fill in the rest of our 1.5 hours. That was the worst discussion we ever had. I will never pick a Jane Austen book for my group again. She just doesn’t say enough in her books.

    1. Jackie says:

      Amanda, I think the personality of each person matters a lot when discussing moral issues, but also how strongly people feel about the issue. I think if you have a lot of people who aren’t decided then you can have a great discussion, but if someone feels strongly about something and takes things personally then it can quickly end in disaster.

      I am surprised that Jane Austen created such a poor discussion – thanks for the tip!

  7. Andi says:

    It’s been a while since I’ve participated in a bookgroup — online or in person. I do remember that books we didn’t all like seemed to be the best discussion. We were always nice to each other in discussing them, but disagreements were not a bad thing. Any book that was too one-dimensional tended to promote less discussion, though we could always talk about *something* it seemed.

    1. Jackie says:

      Andi, I think having strong opinions on a book makes the discussion more interesting – even if you are just arguing about which bit was best!

  8. Kay says:

    I moderate two book groups at my local library and we had a good time in both of them. They are very different though. One group reads regular fiction and nonfiction and the other reads mysteries. Some discussion similarities exist though. When we discuss a book that everyone has loved or at least liked well enough, the discussion does tend to bog down some. We’ve added a few things that help with that though. At each meeting, one member has volunteered to be our “extra content” person. That member shares something that she has found related to the book, the author, the theme, the setting, really just about anything. It’s been quite successful, but we’ve sometimes not had much time to discuss the book as that tends to lead us into conversation about the “extra stuff”.

    The mystery group shares a lot of “what have you been reading” after we talk about the current book. I have found though that mysteries and thrillers can certainly be discussed. They are just a little different.

    Both of the groups I participate in have very chatty members though. We rarely run out of things to say.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kay, I like the extra content idea – perhaps the extra content should be left for the end, when people have exhausted the book discussion?

      The ‘what have you been reading’ discussions are great. It is a good way to pass on book recommendations and I bet you find some interesting books there. Thanks for the insight into your groups!

  9. Dan Holloway says:

    I think it doesn’t work to choose books that everyone reveres or you can end up with very little to say – on the other hand if all but one of you love a book that can lead to fantastic discussions.

    I don’t think there’s a problem with choosing books that deal with really knotty issues, but I DO think you need to judge that on your membership and be sensitive both to the group, and to individuals – for example if one of your number has a close relative who’s just committed suicide, choosing The Bell Jar could be either terribly insensitive, or incredibly helpful, depending on the individual concerned.

    So I think the dilemmas are less to do with the books, and more to do with exercising your EQ when choosing for a set of readers.

    1. Jackie says:

      Dan, We had an interesting discussion at our group last month when I was the only one that hated a book which everyone else loved (Dangerous Liaisons) but I would have prefered it if some of the other people who hadn’t liked it had been present – I think an even split of lovers/haters would have been much better.

  10. cbjames says:

    I like Kay’s group idea–sharing a book you’ve read recently and recommend after the discussion ends. My group has been meeting for over ten years, and honestly there’s no telling which book will get the discussion going. I do remember that Cloud Atlas produced one of our longest, on topic discussions. We tend to wander off topic after 20-30 minutes, sometimes after 15.

    We’ve read several mysteries and ended up discussion their settings much more than the actual books. But that was okay.

    We do look for books with some meat on them, but other than that I’ve no advice to offer here at all. Whatever works, works I guess.

    1. Jackie says:

      cbjames, I think Cloud Atlas is an amazing book, so I’m not surprised that you spent a long time talking about it. David Mitchell is an outstanding author and there are so many little details in his books – I wish I could have discussed them.

      I’m impressed that you’ve been a member of a book group for ten years – I hope ours continues for that long!

      1. Pssst, one of my book groups in past chose Cloud Atlas one year and NONE of us finished it… My friend Carsten is still bitter about that one.

        1. Jackie says:

          Claire, SHOCKING! LOL!

  11. MazzyJ says:

    From a friend’s experience, choosing a book that everyone universally appreciates e.g The ghost Stories of M.R James, can make discussion pretty redundant…

    1. Jackie says:

      MazzyJ, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time! I haven’t heard of M.R James, but I like the sound of universally appealing Ghost Stories – thanks for the recommendation! I’ll avoid suggesting it for the book group though!

  12. Interesting question, Jackie. I wonder too what would constitute as a bad book group book; I’ve been lucky with the books I’ve read for the book groups I’ve been in and some books were better for generating discussion than others but all were good choices, I think.

    The Riverside Readers have had some great choices and I think the diverse personalities and passion for books have helped; no discussion has flagged or failed because there is such a range of opinions.

    I think that a book has to have enough plot, characterisation and though-provoking ideas to sustain interest in debade; if there are no talking points in a book then debate won’t be had. I don’t think that short stories would work for a book group as the conversation would be too bitty, moving from one story and back again… I could be wrong but it would make an interesting experiment.

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, Some people have suggested that short stories are good for book groups, but as I’m not a fan of them I’m not going to suggest it! Perhaps the fact that they are bound to split opinion makes them a good choice?

  13. Annabel says:

    I’ve struggled to find a book our book group has read that didn’t generate discussion – they’re few and far between. It’s rare that we’re all in agreement about a book, so that gets things going certainly, but as with The Death of Grass which we all loved, we got stuck into the moral stuff which was great – and leavened with good humour.

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, It sounds as though you belong to a great group. I love the sound of The Death of Grass – I need to try to get hold of a copy.

  14. Mome Rath says:

    I definitely agree that with longer books we had less participation, since not everyone finished the books. But those that showed up discussed as much as they could, whether or not they finished the book. I think what helped make the discussions even more enjoyable was that we often made or bought food somehow related to the book or the culture where the book took place. Really, a lot of what makes a book club special is the camaraderie, isn’t it?

    1. Jackie says:

      Mome Rath, I would love themed food at a book group, but then I’m a fan of food anytime!

      I agree – camaraderie is what makes a group really special. It is good to know that you enjoy yours.

  15. Andreea says:

    I have never joined a book group but I am interested in doing so in the future. Thanks for these questions.

    1. Jackie says:

      Andreea, I hope that you manage to find a good group to join soon.

  16. Julie says:

    I think a book that everyone loves can actually make for a book club choice. It’s more fun to debate about why you did or didn’t like the book or why you did or didn’t agree with things the characters did in the book. When everyone agrees it hasn’t left much in terms of discussion.

  17. Beth F says:

    I don’t think there is any real way to predict. Some books that my club picked that I thought would prompt great discussions didn’t and others that I thought would have no discussion turned into a great meeting. I don’t think a moral issue is necessary for a good book club discussion. Fortunately I’m in a great club and we can always find something to talk about!

  18. Patty says:

    Who knows why some books just don’t work. I once brought some Edgar Allen Poe works to my book club, half the club absolutely loved it and the other half refused to read after about 2 paragraphs.

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