Often I find myself stuck at school or on a bus where I can’t pull my laptop out and start work on onix feeds or Google AdWords – there might be no internet connection, which just means I’ll have to work on things already saved to my computer’s hard drive (e.g. the Canada Council application), or I might not be able to take out my laptop at all – which has the potential to leave me pretty work-less!
One thing left to me, however, is creating reading guides for teachers or book clubs. These take the form of open-ended discussion questions that a teacher could use in a classroom setting or seminar, or that a book club could use as a flexible framework for their next meeting. So far I have created three reading guides: My Other Women by Pauline Carey, The Dodecahedron by Paul Glennon, and Welcome to Canada by David Carpenter. In the case of Welcome to Canada, it was particularly important to finish the reading guide quickly since I was conducting a simultaneous marketing campaign through worldcat. Currently I also have Mary Swan’s The Deep and Ian Colford’s Evidence on the go right now, as well.
Reading guides are really fun for me. It reminds me of the best of university: reading a book, thinking about it and then talking about it with a bunch of other interested people. When I read a PQL book for the first time (with the intention of writing a reading guide for it), I read it slowly and keep a notebook beside me to jot down page numbers with interesting quotations and any initial thoughts I have about the book. Depending on the book’s complexity I might read it again quickly, and that’s often where the better questions come from; upon second reading, many books (especially PQL books!) offer up many other angles and perspectives that are easily missed the first time. The best part about using a notebook while you’re reading the book, instead of just afterwards, is that it helps me to keep track of my progress and thoughts even though I have to read the book in small chunks between classes during the day, instead of all at once.
I try to aim at 9-11 questions per book. This might seem strange considering the books are sometimes very different sizes (The Deep is 90 pp. while Welcome to Canada is 246 pp.), but since I select the reading guide books based on how complex they are rather than how long (or short) they are, I think 9-11 questions works out for each of them regardless of page length.
It also helps to pull in reviewers’ comments, if possible. My hope is that an interesting review comment will encourage those using the reading guide to check out the reviewer’s website for more information – where they will likely find reviews of other PQL books. It’s also a nice way to give back to the reviewer for their taking the time to write about one of our books.
How do I come up with the questions? I start with interesting phrases or sections and then ask specific questions that can help the reader to tie that phrase or section into the rest of the book – or to pull out a conflict between that section with the rest of the book. I do my best to avoid questions that guide the answer too much; though I have my opinions, I always try to remember that when I was in high school and university I hated being told what the ‘right’ answer was in the question itself. I always thought of it was being bossy, and anyway, that’s not what book criticism is about. Of course, the questions can’t be too difficult, either. I think that the best questions don’t require any prior reading (apart from the book at hand) to understand or to discuss in an interesting way.
And before I leave, here’s a fun article from Good Magazine on the history of the word “OK”. What I want to know is, what’s the right way to spell it?!