God bless Rachel Cusk.
Summer 2012 fiction bender.

Using nonfiction in book groups.

A very nice group of library professionals in South Carolina invited me to chat with them briefly yesterday about using nonfiction titles in book groups, and I sincerely hope a good time was had by all.* (I know I enjoyed myself thoroughly.)

My brief notes on the program and a list of suggested NF book titles can be found in the sidebar, under the Readers' Advisory Programs heading, or by clicking here.

The way I see it, there are some difficulties using NF, but most of those challenges actually lead to new opportunities. For instance: whenever a librarian is running a book group, almost always the first thing they have to consider is whether or not their library or library system owns enough of the books to pass out to book group readers (usually at least 5-15 copies, and preferably some in different formats, like audio books, large print, and now, of course, ebooks). I find this an obnoxious limit, because almost all of the NF titles I really want to discuss are owned in much smaller numbers than that. Nonfiction is also sometimes challenging to discuss because some people can be put off by the "realness" of it (particularly with sex, violence, and of course, profanity, which often seems to bother people more than the first two, which I'll never ever understand); nonfiction can also take longer to read, and can be perceived as lacking in "style" to discuss.

To all of those drawbacks, I say: pshaw!

I've been thinking about nonfiction in the shower** for the last few days, wondering how it could be used in book groups. And now, of course, I'm somewhat annoyed that I don't work in a library right now, because I'd love to try some things out. For instance, I'd love to work around the title availability question by offering book groups with unified themes or formats rather than everyone having to read the same title. So, what about: a book group discussing a variety of nonfiction graphic novels. What about focusing on a particular author, and offering 2-3 different choices of that author's fiction and nonfiction? (Calvin Trillin comes to mind here, as does someone like James Howard Kunstler.)

As far as discussing the "style" of nonfiction, well, you know I could do that all day. How did the author decide to write on this subject? How much truth is in this memoir, do you think? How did this author look at this historical or biographical subject in a fresh way? How comprehensively is this book researched and referenced? The possible questions abound.

Above all, I did sound a note of caution about always falling into the "we must find nonfiction that reads like fiction" trap. Nonfiction has become increasingly "narrative," offering much more in storylines and character development than it used to (perhaps because that is what sells). But sometimes the less narrative stuff is fun to discuss too. Personally, I read nonfiction because it is NOT fiction. I remember when I read Suze Orman's first book, mainly out of curiosity, I really wanted to discuss that puppy with someone--she devotes a lot of pages in that one to her own relationship with money, in addition to laying out some good financial precepts. There's no real story there, but it was interesting, particularly in light of the fact that Suze went on to become her own huge personal financial brand.

Anyway: that was long-winded. Sorry. What I meant to ask was, is anyone out there using NF in your book groups? How is it going? What titles have you used, successfully or not?

*Thanks for having me, Richland County Public Library system!

**This sounds kinky, but mainly my 5-10 minutes in the shower are the only minutes during which I can focus lately.