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How to Get the Most Out of a Reading Group

Posted on 11th October 2016 by Sally Campbell
Catherine Belsey is the author of Criticism, an introductory guide to the art of critical analysis and of expressing an opinion.  Here, she shares insights into how best to approach the running of reading groups, in such a way that all members get a deeper understanding of a text and each is inspired to participate in robust debate.

It’s good to see so many book groups in vigorous action. The pleasures of reading are not the same as the joys of talking about reading but, in my experience, each of them adds to the other.

Books groups are often blessedly free of the assumptions that weigh down academic criticism: people can say what they feel in a safe space without quite so much fear of letting the side down. Even so, it can be useful to the group to stand back from time to time and reflect on the practice of reading. Sometimes, disagreements about a particular book can be traced back to different ideas of what reading is or what critics do.

Do we always have to make a judgement, for example? ‘Did you like it?’ can make a good starting point, but rushing to take sides for or against sometimes generates more heat than light. Need a book measure up to standards of literary excellence to be worth discussion? Is it enjoyable if — or especially if — it doesn’t? If so, what constitutes the pleasure of reading? Could you like a book, even if you don’t share its values? Might it still be interesting when you don’t much like it?



These are some of the questions I tackle in my new book, Criticism. I’m not sure they have definitive answers, although I put forward my views — for discussion, naturally.

How important is it to know about the author? Not very, it seems, since Elena Ferrante has taken the world by storm while keeping her secrets. Evidently, we don’t need to find the author’s personal experiences in the work.

I’ve just read a review of Woody Allen’s latest film Café Society. The reviewer found reflections in the movie of the director’s dubious private life —and quite missed the ambivalent picture of 1930s Hollywood and a jazz soundtrack to die for.

And that’s the trouble with authors. Their life story, when we know it, too easily takes the place of the story they tell. On this basis, all Woody Allen’s recent films are the same film: a re-enactment of the director’s alleged dark past.

The same reviewer complained that Café Society was muddled. He began with an idea of what a rom-com ought to be, and found this one wanting. But perhaps the movie says something about desire and disappointment that is beyond the reach of the standard romantic comedy?

So I have three top tips for readers:

1. Don’t let the author get in the way.

2. Don’t start from an idea of what the book is trying to be.

3. Let it surprise you.

And then enjoy reading it, or talking it over, or, with luck, both.

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