My first official post as a SleuthSayers contributor—my first big deadline here!—arrives at a busy confluence of events. The Fall for the Book festival, which I've helped run for more than 12 years at George Mason University, is still underway as this post appears (and battening down, scrambling to reorganize as a hurricane looms), and next week, Bouchercon begins down in Raleigh, and just a couple of weeks back, my first book came out (with all the busyness that entails), and on the same day as the launch party, I was a speaker at the Fairfax County Public Library's Book Club Conference and....
the point of all this isn't that it's a busy time, but rather that I wanted
to set up a focus on one of the elements that threads through all these various events.
My role at the library's Book Club Conference
was to talk about how to moderate a book group—tips and tactics to help
keep discussion going, keep the focus on the book (instead of the
wine!), and keep everyone involved and engaged. Before I got into
specific recommendations, however, I asked people what they wanted from a
book club in the first place.
I already had my
PowerPoint prepared—the next slide ready to provide my answer to the
question—so I hoped that the comments from the attendees would jibe
with my own thoughts and expectations, and it turned out they did. "I
want to learn something." "I want to read a book I might otherwise not
have picked up." "I want to see what other people thought about what we
read." "I like getting together with friends." "I wanted to meet new
people." Or even as simple as: "I wanted to do something different, and I
learned that I liked it."
Here's the PowerPoint slide that I put up at the end of that part of the conversation:
it's those bolded words at the bottom of the slide I want to talk about
now—and not just in terms of reading, but also writing, another
In certain circumstances, reading isn't a
solitary act, of course. We can attend a reading; my wife and I can
read to our son; and in fact, I read to my wife pretty regularly as part
of our evening routine, as I talked about in a recent column for the Washington Independent Review of Books. But most of the time, reading is one person engaging with one book at their own individual pace.
writing can be a collaborative process, of course, but that image of
the writer alone with her pen or alone in front of the computer is a
persistent one for a reason. We engage with the page—trying to capture
in words those characters and stories our imagination has conjured up.
connection, then, becomes this: solitary writer --> piece of writing
--> solitary reader. And in the process, there's also this
connection implicit in that one: solitary writer --> solitary reader.
A book club provide the opportunity to expand that solitary reading experience into a shared one. What did you take from the book? What were your attitudes about this character? What did you think of the author's decision to....? And in the process, what emerges is: What did we think of....? —not a decision that will reach unanimity, but a conversation that serves to be bigger than the sum of its parts.
all my years with Fall for the Book, there have been two types of
moments that have struck me as central to our mission—and neither
depends exclusively on the actual programming we've hosted year
after year. Those readings and panel discussions are part of the larger
engagement, of course: hearing authors read from or speak about their
works. But what strikes me as more important is when a reader comes in
holding a well-loved copy of a book and meets and asks a question of the
person who wrote it—making manifest somehow the connection that already exists by virtue of those two solitary experiences I mentioned above, with the book as the connecting point. The other moment is when that
reader turns to another person holding another well-loved copy of the
same book and says something like, "Didn't you love it when....?"
book club or a book festival serve to turn the solitary experience of
reading into a communal experience, hopefully enriching connections and
perspectives and understanding.
And for an event like
Bouchercon ahead, opportunities exist not just to connect readers and
writers but also to connect people within the community of writer.
Networking is inevitably an important aspect of conferences. (How many
people will be meeting with their agent or editor next week? How many
will be looking for a new agent or courting an editor? How many might
ask a writer friend to suggest an agent?) But beyond those more
goal-oriented aspects, there's something more important that's gained by
being not so alone—by meeting and greeting and sharing anecdotes with
others who have elsewhere been
toiling alone over those notebooks or in front of that screen, making
physical and concrete those connections and that camaraderie that
already exist in myriad ways.
I enjoyed your book. I admire your work so much. What you do—it matters, it meant something to me.
I just wanted to say that.