Book discussion

I have found that one of the best ways to create character, to craft plot, and to dream theme is to be part of a book discussion group.

I belong to three separate groups. One is devoted to Moby Dick, and we are taking a few chapters each month to sail our way through that perfect book. We’ve been at it for nearly two years, and we hope to finish this summer. This group meets in the offices of an ethnic newspaper.

Another group I meet with is focused on social justice issues and reads and discusses books that lend themselves to that area of thought and action. We meet every other month in a spare room above a homeless shelter. Our next book here will be Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen about a town in the Pacific Northwest that isolated itself from the world during the influenza epidemic at the beginning of the last century.

The third group I am in meets at the library. It’s relatively new, but it is the latest incarnation of a group I’ve been with there for more than a decade. The selections here are a little less focused than in the other two groups, but they are far from mainstream, commercial novels (which I’m not sure would lead to much in-depth discussion). The latest book we discussed was The Assault by Harry Mulisch (about Nazi Resistance in Holland and the lifelong consequences of a single act), and our next book is Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury (which will be the first Palestinian novel I will have ever read). Madame Bovary is coming up. So in a series of short stories by William Faulkner.

I see some of the same faces at each group but there are always new people coming who join the chorus of words and ideas. Anyone and everyone is welcome, of course.

It has been hugely helpful to me to see how other people read the same book I have. I generally leave these discussions having a completely new understanding of the book. I see all sorts of nuances and meanings that escaped me (and I like to think that I sometimes I offer fresh ideas of my own to the group as well). I think I benefit from seeing how others understand how fiction works. When they speak, I get to see how they read, and I think that helps me craft my own fiction.

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