DEAR READERS: I've stepped away from the Ask Amy column for two weeks to work on a new writing project. I hope you enjoy these edited "best of" columns in my absence. All of these questions and answers were first published 10 years ago. Today's column topic: Book clubs.
DEAR AMY: In my book group, we try to keep our discussions focused by following the reading group guides or questions provided by the publisher. Nevertheless, one of our members never fails to monopolize the discussion, and her comments are mostly off the mark or anecdotal. One of our members plans to call her out in front of the group at our next discussion, and I am for some other approach to avoid embarrassing her. Is there a good way to keep people on the topic and to avoid long-winded personal testimonials when discussing our books?
DEAR MARY: I ran your question past a few people who have been in longstanding book groups, and the consensus is that your group should spend some time at the beginning of your next meeting restating and refreshing your goals — literary and otherwise.
It's all about the fit in any social group, and if your group is more serious and literary, then you should all agree that your focus will be pointed toward the literature and away from personal stories or digressions.
The person who leads the next group meeting should start by asking members to state their objectives, and the group should decide on very basic ground rules. One person who can direct the conversation away from anecdotes and toward the book, should moderate each meeting. If this one member can't adjust to the style of the group, she should be encouraged (privately) to find another group.
As the author of a book making the rounds of book groups, I'll weigh in and say that, although one person dominating a conversation is never acceptable, a group of people opening up a box of wine and straying from the provided questions is exactly what I had in mind as I was writing my memoir. Bookbrowse.com provides helpful tips for setting up and running a book group. (May 2009)
DEAR AMY: I have a neighbor who is part of our neighborhood book group. She doesn't come to the monthly meetings more than twice a year, but she has used our email addresses three times in the past six months to promote her husband's construction business, her new cleaning business and a student exchange program, which she would probably receive a referral bonus for because she has a student living with her now. I am uncomfortable with her abuse of our email addresses, and I would like to address the issue with her tactfully.
Concerned in Connecticut
DEAR CONCERNED: In situations such as this, it is best to ask oneself, "What would Jane Austen do?" An Austen character would no doubt dispatch this issue with her customary rapier wit, all the while creating something of a commotion, which would be nicely and neatly resolved in about 200 pages. Receiving a group email three times over six months sounds tolerable to me. Bring up these solicitations at your next book club meeting. If there is a consensus within your group, send your neighbor a group-generated email reminding her that these are private email addresses, not to be used for sales purposes. If you are on your own in objecting to this, reply to your neighbor yourself, asking her to please remove your email address from her group emails. (August 2009)
DEAR AMY: My 85-year-old mom and I have observed several widows continuing to keep their husband's voice on their answering machines. When it answers, you hear an outgoing message delivered by the dead husband. We don't understand why they insist on keeping the recorded voice for all the incoming callers to hear. Can you shed light on the reasoning behind these actions?
DEAR BOB: I can think of two explanations — either hearing their husband's voice from time to time brings solace, or they can't quite figure out how to rerecord an outgoing message (I would join them in this frustration). Either reason is completely understandable. (February 2009)
DEAR READERS: Are you curious about my background and life outside of the confines of this space? Read my two memoirs: "The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town that Raised Them," and "Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things," available wherever books are sold or borrowed.