Monthly Archives: December 2013

In the Club: Book Discussion Wins and Fails

Boss came to me a few months ago with an idea: patrons had approached her who couldn’t make the current club’s Monday afternoon meetings, or who couldn’t finish the 400+ page selections before the club met. They had constraints on their time, like jobs during the day, kids, etc. So could Boss and I work on a book club for the busy adult, with short selections and a more convenient meeting time? Thus was born the Short on Time Book Club, meeting Saturday afternoons to discuss books and plays of 250 pages or less.

It’s truthfully been a bit slow to start out. Last month I led the discussion on The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. It’s a 1959 short novel that has influenced the likes of Stephen King, and it’s one of the most terrifying novels ever. So it’s got lots of street cred. However, we only have one skinny little copy in the entire system, and the rest of our copies of the text are wedged in an 832-page monster anthology that will bring shudders to most and perhaps PTSD flashbacks to former English majors. (Ugh, I hated that early American gothic literature class so much…) I’m sure the intimidating packaging of Hill House contributed to the small turnout:

My home copy and the thin library copy, which looks cool and Hitchcockian.
My home copy and the thin library copy, which looks cool and Hitchcockian.
"No no, you only have to read 174 pages of this!"
“No no, you only have to read 174 pages of this!”

Were there lessons to be learned from my first book discussion? Absolutely!

  1. Judge a book by its cover – the cover the library has the most of. If it’s not portable or it looks like a textbook / torture device, people aren’t going to pick it up.
  2. Classic authors’ shorter works are often anthologized.
  3. Newer authors’ shorter works are generally not anthologized. Or if they are, their covers are sexy.
  4. Don’t feel obligated to choose a title that’s familiar. Take a risk with something new and interesting, read a couple reviews online, then dive right in and discover the book along with the book club.

But despite my book selection missteps, I was really happy with the discussion questions I compiled! Here they are, starting with some general book club questions and moving more into Hill House:

  • Icebreaker: Talk about another creepy book you’ve read, a movie you’ve seen, etc.
  • What did you think of the book?
  • What did you like and dislike?
  • Was it a quick and engaging read?
  • Who was your favorite character and your least favorite character?
  • What are some major themes, and how are they similar or different from other horror stories?
  • What was the most terrifying moment to you?
  • How do the different characters perceive the house?
  • How do the characters relate to one another? What sort of social groups do they form, and why?
  • What are the expectations imposed on each character by family, gender, age, etc.?
  • The house is described as having an oppressive atmosphere. How do the characters, specifically Eleanor, experience oppression in other ways?
  • Why does the house seem to focus on Eleanor?
  • Is the house evil inherently, or is the house only affecting Eleanor’s own perspective?
  • Was Eleanor unhinged before coming to Hill House? What caused her final unhinging?
  • Who or what is responsible for the paranormal activity? Does it exist at all?
  • Characters acknowledge that they could just leave. Why do they stay?
  • The narration shifts several times over the course of the novel. When and how does it shift, and why?
  • The first page states that “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolutely reality.” How does this tie in to the overall story?
  • Several times, Eleanor has the thought “Journeys end in lovers meeting.” Does she meet her lover?
  • Do you think Eleanor was a good caretaker of her mother?
  • Dr. Montague has a certain approach to the paranormal, and so does his wife. Do either of their methods work?
  • Horror is an individual experience. How do the characters experience Hill House differently?
  • How does the novel make use of color?
  • What does the house represent to the characters? To you?
  • Aside from her horror stories, Jackson also often wrote about raising her four children, and she published her stories in women’s magazines like Woman’s Day and Good Housekeeping. How does this knowledge enhance your reading of Hill House?
  • BONUS LIT CRIT NERDINESS: discuss themes of family dysfunction, sexuality and sexual oppression, the nurture versus nature debate, the construct of the hysterical female in psychology / media / other horror narratives.

For further reading:

  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  • House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • Further watching: The Haunting (1963) directed by Robert Wise

If you’re familiar with the text and can think of any other discussion questions or further readings, please leave a comment! Happy clubbing!

(P.S. – I do not apologize for the post title. Somebody had to make sure that donated 50 Cent CD played okay and didn’t skip before we gave it to tech services for cataloging!)