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It's the Season of Group Reads

Inspired by Women in Translation Month (#WIT) which is an annual monthlong reading event that happens every August, I looked through some books that I have been wanting to read but have put off due to length of the novel, the complexity of the writing, or that I frankly lack some of the needed contextual insights to understand the book. I found a few that fit that bill, so I opened a call for participation in some group read that I would host for the following books:

  • Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell which just won the Booker International Prize (currently in progress for the August read, so the group is now closed)

  • The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft (the September read- sign up before August 30th when the form will close.)

  • The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. (This is not a translated novel. We will read this in October- sign up before October 29th when the form will close.)

* I am adding my Blackwell's Affiliate link if you all want to purchase the same edition as I have or want to support the blog.

Hosting Principles

I also thought it would be helpful to share some of my principles in how I host a group read, in case you have been curious about joining one but weren't sure what to expect.

I leverage the free Voxer app to host. There is a mobile and desktop version, though most people use the mobile app primarily. I like the cost (free unless you want some premium features, and then the cost is nominal), the flexibility to leave a voice message or to use the text feature, and the global reach. It works like a Walkie Talkie, in that there is only one message left at a time, and a person who is using the speaking feature can speak for 15 mins before getting cut off. Texts can span paragraphs and offer an effective alternative should someone not want to speak on the spot. The app gives people both options and an opportunity to express themselves in a way that allows for more detailed and complex manners, but in a light manner. For the types of group reads I want to host, I want active and thoughtful dialog, so these features help.

Check in timing and etiquette:

Upon reviewing the length of a book, I look at the number of Sundays available in the month. I prefer to keep the reading to a single month, when possible. I then share the schedule on the Voxer app for the participants. It tells what point to read up to, and when to check in. I like to limit the check ins to a single day with spillover into the next day. This allows us to manage rich conversations in an organized fashion without disrupting us during the week with new pings of insights. As many of the reads I host are attended by people all over the globe, Sunday is defined by the start of their day in their time zone. This seems the fairest.

One hard and fast rule I have is that we do not indicate our overall preference (ex. I am liking/not liking this book) as we share our thoughts. This is the trickiest, but also, I think one of the most important aspects. If someone opens the check in chat with a declaration that they love or hate the book, what else is there to say? It can quickly destroy any opportunity to have a chat that invokes curiosity in the group. The people who maybe feel the same will add their voice to that chorus, and the ones who don't will form another team with each side doubling down on their position, looking for ways to justify it in the coming sections and trying to convince the others of their reading. This is disastrous to the types of conversation I want to foster. I want to lead with ideas on what the author is telling us, how that is coming across, and insights as we progress. It is only at the end do we declare our preferences on the work.

But that's not to say that some people may not be connecting to the work and therefore don't want to continue with the reading. I understand that completely and it's fine to DNF it and to quit participating in the group actively. There may be cases where they may not want to read further but do want to still listen in on the conversation, which is absolutely fine to do. But I ask that if someone does want to quit, that they do so quietly, letting me know on the side, as opposed to telling the team their opinions and leaving because it acts like a mic drop for the remaining members.

I have no other rules other than simple decency to our fellow readers in the group. The need to build a spirit of inclusion is important to me. We all come to the readings with our life experiences, and I want to see what others see and how they interpret the same things I read in different ways. I may not agree with the interpretations, or the thinking, but understanding the context is important. This becomes especially challenging if the material offers up controversial, shocking or dated with regards to things that may offend. I always ask for some thoughtfulness as we discuss those topics. And often the conversation should be focused back on to the text- 'what is the author trying to say with the inclusion of that material? Is it a reflection of the character or are they saying something themselves through the character? Is it effective?' Those redirections can help us work through some of those sections.

There has not been one group read I have done that hasn't been enlightening, brought me real insights, and introduced me to new people and new ways of thinking. That is what keeps me wanting to host them! I hope you will consider joining should the books I pick interest you. And if you have participated in one I have hosted, I thank you so much for enriching my reading experiences.

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