The Help Desk: The talking cure

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to:

Dear Cienna,

We have a real piece of work in our book club. Never reads the book, always has too much to say, never stays on topic (most likely because he never reads the book.) I get the sense that he loves the book club and it might be one of his only real social outlets, but his obnoxiousness is starting to scare off other members of the club. Do you have any ideas on how to gently train a bad book club member into a better book club member?

Ann, Avalon

Dear Ann,

It takes time and patience to re-train adults to honor even basic social mores. My mother has had a persistent case of Munchausen by proxy ever since I hit puberty. I still must have a service animal taste test all of my meals when she's around for the holidays. (Don't worry, I use spiders now. It has shaved hours off my Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve grave digging.)

There are three routes you can take.

1) Tell your book club that you've noticed the conversation veers off topic pretty quickly. So, for the first half hour or so, you're going to try and keep the conversation on topic as much as possible. Remind people that if they haven't read the book, they can grab something to eat and quietly enjoy the discussion.

2) Get a talking stick. I know: I, too, hate talking sticks. But! I've heard they work for some groups – especially groups that have quieter folks who don't speak up as much. You can float it by your group with, "Hey, I've noticed that some people don't talk much during book club. I'd like to hear what everyone has to say. What do you guys think of using this talking stick for a bit just to train ourselves to give everyone a chance to speak?"

3) Nominate the next mouthiest person in the group to moderate discussions. Equip them with book-related questions. When your mouthy guest jumps in with his own thoughts, train them to chant, "Interesting point. How does that relate to the book?" Again and again and again.

Just as I have to remind my mom every holiday season of the notarized letter on my fridge that says, "In the case of Cienna Madrid's sudden and mysterious death, check her mother's pockets for poison," you will have to remind your badly-behaving attendee that his input is only welcome if it's on topic. If all else fails, gentle poisoning may be your next best option. Eating unripe persimmons makes a person's mouth go numb. Maybe feed him a basket of those? 'Tis the season!