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Michael's Tips

Prior to your meeting: Be sure you read the novel to be discussed specifically for this discussion. If you have read the novel before but not for this discussion specifically, reading it again is the single most important thing you can do to prepare for this event. Keep in mind that there is a difference between collaborating with others to understand what a novel is attempting to communicate and participants in the group taking turns giving their opinions about the novel. Sharing opinions about fiction has its rewards, but opinions about anything are only as meaningful as they are informed. 


Dedicate the first half (or more) of your discussion discussing what the novel is communicating. What is the vision animating it? What does the novel enable us to imagine that we may not have imagined without reading this novel? The most direct way to engage with a novel’s vision is through the specific words, images, and metaphors the author uses. What words and images are used again and again throughout the novel? What are the characters names? (Why, for example, is Holden Caulfield the name of the main character of The Catcher in the Rye, or why is “Scout” the first name of Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird? An author can give a character any name imaginable, so why that name? Likewise, with the novel’s title: why—keeping with our two examples about character names—is To Kill a Mockingbird the title of that novel? Why did Salinger give his novel the title of The Catcher in the Rye? Beginnings and endings of novels almost always convey images that are at the heart of the novel’s vision. 


Consider reading the first two or three paragraphs of the novel as a group, attending carefully to every word chosen in those paragraphs. If you attend carefully enough to the words used in a novel’s opening and ending you will discover one or more words that take you to the heart of what the novel enables its readers to see. These suggestions are offered to emphasize how much of what we call the novel’s “meaning” is communicated through very specific words and images that the author uses. Words are to works of fiction what clay is to a potter, what sounds and rhythms are to a musician, and what shapes, colors, and textures are to a painter. In short, the most meaningful discussions of a work of fiction grow out of the participant’s careful attention to a work’s language. 


Opinions about a work of fiction may be interesting, but if opinions about a book dominate the discussion it will be difficult, if not impossible, for participants to arrive at insights about the book that none of the participants would have had, had they not come together to discuss the book. The deeper we understand a novel on the terms of its language, the more meaningful will be our thoughts about it.

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