readguide-girl-blogWriter Joe Queenan thought he might earn a few extra bucks by trying his hand at writing some discussion questions—the ones publishers issue for book clubs. (See our Reading Guides.)

Queenan decided to take a look at what others had done, and what he found surprised him—quirky questions that “force readers to think outside the box.” He refers to them as "off-the-wall questions.” Here’s a sample:

Off the Wall Questions

Anna Karenina—If Anna had lived in our time, how might her story have been different?

Ethan Frome— Is this novel just too grim to be enjoyed? [ For real! ]

Pride and Prejudice—  Have you ever seen a movie version in which the woman playing Jane, as Austen imagined her, was truly more beautiful than the woman playing Elizabeth?
                              “There Will Be a Quiz,” Joe Queenan.
                                New York Times (4-6-08).

Queenan loves
these questions because they “shake up the musty old world of literature.” And that’s great, because I think book clubs have been doing that all along. In fact, hasn’t the role of literature always been to shake things up, to challenge comfortable assumptions? (See our free LitCourse 1—Why We Read.)

But I’ve got some questions of my own:

Questions for book clubs

  1. Do you use book discussion questions? If so, how Do you try to answer them—or use them as a more general way to help you focus on some aspect of the book?
  2. What about Generic Book Questions? Do you ever use them? Do they help? To me, they seem to get to the core of a book more quickly than the publishers’ questions—which have a whiff about them of a really, really tough English exam.

coughHow anyone ever learns to speak and spell English is a mystery.  Below are common words that surely confound anyone—child or adult—trying to learn this quirky language.

Don’t You Just ♥ Words? 

If cow rhymes with bough
shouldn’t cow rhyme with cough?

If rafter rhymes with laughter
shouldn’t rafter rhyme with daughter?

If hoe rhymes with toe
shouldn’t hoe rhyme with shoe?

If threw sounds like through
shouldn’t threw rhyme with rough?

If lime rhymes with climb
shouldn’t limb sound like lime?

These erratic spellings have to do with the development of the English language—which wasn’t really “English” and wasn’t really a language.  From the end of the Roman occupation, the ancient Brits spoke a mishmash of Germanic and Norse tongues, with a soupcon of French and Latin throw in by the upper classes.

The language underwent constant change until the 15th century, leading to such confusion that people from one part of England could barely understand those from another. 

It was William Claxton, a mid-15th century printer, who first began to consolidate and standardize what was by then "modern" English. But he started a bit too early—printing technology cemented the language before all the kinks could be worked out.  Thus, the cow-bough-cough imbroglio.

airEnglish—what a great language to have fun with!  Below is a set of homophones, words that sound alike but have different meanings and often different spellings.  (And, yes, I’ve taken a few liberties.)

Don't You Just ♥ Words?

air  |  ayre  |  ere  |  e’re  |  err  |  heir 

If e’re were a time for the heir to take air,
ere he errs in his ayre, it be now.

Now is the time to take a breath before
he makes a mistake in the song.

Feel free to play along.  These are mine, so see if you can find others. . . or come up with homophones of your own. It’s good brain exercise.

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