Words, Words, Words Book Club

"What do you read, my lord?"
"Words, words, words."
- Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

About the Book Club

Join the Folger as we search the stacks for our favorite novels inspired by Shakespeare and the early modern era.

Held on the first Thursday of the month, this informal, virtual Book Club is free and open to all. Our picks range from historical fiction to adaptations of Shakespeare's plays and are sourced from a different local, independent bookstore partner each month.

To spark the discussion, Folger staff open each meeting with a brief presentation that provides historical context, trivia, and connects the book to relevant items from the Folger Collection. Participants are then broken into smaller groups for breakout discussions, moderated by a team of staff and volunteers.

After each event, all resources—including discussion questions—are made publicly available on the Folger Spotlight blog to help readers explore each book and even host their own conversation!


Information on September's session coming soon.
 

Previous Selections

Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold
by Bolu Babalola
June 2022

A high-born Nigerian goddess, who has been beaten down and unappreciated by her gregarious lover, longs to be truly seen. A young businesswoman attempts a great leap in her company, and an even greater one in her love life. A powerful Ghanaian spokeswoman is forced to decide whether she should uphold her family’s politics or be true to her heart. In her debut collection, internationally acclaimed writer Bolu Babalola retells the most beautiful love stories from history and mythology with incredible new detail and vivacity. Focusing on the magical folktales of West Africa, Babalola also reimagines Greek myths, ancient legends from the Middle East, and stories from long-erased places. With an eye towards decolonizing tropes inherent in our favorite tales of love, Babalola has created captivating stories that traverse across perspectives, continents, and genres.

About the Novel | Resource Guide | Collection Connections | PDF icon Discussion Questions

 

Vinegar Girl
by Anne Tyler
May 2022

Kate Battista feels stuck. How did she end up running house and home for her eccentric scientist father and uppity, pretty younger sister Bunny? Plus, she’s always in trouble at work – her pre-school charges adore her, but their parents don’t always appreciate her unusual opinions and forthright manner. Dr. Battista has other problems. After years out in the academic wilderness, he is on the verge of a breakthrough. His research could help millions. There’s only one problem: his brilliant young lab assistant, Pyotr, is about to be deported. And without Pyotr, all would be lost. When Dr. Battista cooks up an outrageous plan that will enable Pyotr to stay in the country, he’s relying – as usual – on Kate to help him. Kate is furious: this time he’s really asking too much. But will she be able to resist the two men’s touchingly ludicrous campaign to bring her around?

About the Novel | Resource Guide | Collection Connections | PDF icon Discussion Questions

 

If We Were Villians
by M. L. Rio
April 2022

On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it. A decade ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extras. But in their fourth and final year, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make-believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent.

About the Novel | Resource Guide | Collection ConnectionsPDF icon Discussion Questions

 

The King at the Edge of the World
byby Arthur Phillips
March 2022

The year is 1601. Queen Elizabeth is dying, childless. The nervous kingdom has no heir. It is a capital crime even to think that Elizabeth will ever die. Potential successors secretly maneuver to be in position when the inevitable arrives. The leading candidate is King James VI of Scotland, but there is a problem. The queen's spymasters—hardened veterans of a long war on terror and religious extremism—fear that James is not what he appears. He has every reason to claim he is a Protestant, but if he secretly shares his family's Catholicism, then the last forty years of religious war will have been for nothing, and a bloodbath will ensue. With time running out, London confronts a seemingly impossible question: What does James truly believe? It falls to Geoffrey Belloc, a secret warrior from the hottest days of England's religious battles, to devise a test to discover the true nature of King James's soul. Belloc enlists Mahmoud Ezzedine, a Muslim physician left behind by the last diplomatic visit from the Ottoman Empire, as his undercover agent. The perfect man for the job, Ezzedine is the ultimate outsider, stranded on this cold, wet, and primitive island. He will do almost anything to return home to his wife and son.

About the Novel | Resource Guide | Collection ConnectionsPDF icon Discussion Questions

 

The Weight of Ink
by by Rachel Kadish
February 2022

Set in London of the 1660s and of the early twenty-first century, The Weight of Ink is the interwoven tale of two women of remarkable intellect: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city; and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history. When Helen is summoned by a former student to view a cache of newly discovered seventeenth-century Jewish documents, she enlists the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student as impatient as he is charming, and embarks on one last project: to determine the identity of the documents' scribe, the elusive "Aleph." Electrifying and ambitious, The Weight of Ink is about women separated by centuries--and the choices and sacrifices they must make in order to reconcile the life of the heart and mind.

About the Novel | Resource Guide | Collection ConnectionsPDF icon Discussion Questions

 

All's Well
by Mona Awad
December 2021

Miranda Fitch’s life is a waking nightmare. The accident that ended her burgeoning acting career left her with excruciating, chronic back pain, a failed marriage, and a deepening dependence on painkillers. And now she’s on the verge of losing her job as a college theater director. Determined to put on Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, the play that promised, and cost, her everything, she faces a mutinous cast hellbent on staging Macbeth instead. Miranda sees her chance at redemption slip through her fingers. That’s when she meets three strange benefactors who have an eerie knowledge of Miranda’s past and a tantalizing promise for her future: one where the show goes on, her rebellious students get what’s coming to them, and the invisible, doubted pain that’s kept her from the spotlight is made known.

About the Novel | Resource Guide | Collection ConnectionsPDF icon Discussion Questions

 

The Porpoise
by Mark Haddon
November 2021
 
In a bravura feat of storytelling, Mark Haddon calls upon narratives ancient and modern to tell the story of Angelica, a young woman trapped in an abusive relationship with her father. When a young man named Darius discovers their secret, he is forced to escape on a boat bound for the Mediterranean. To his surprise he finds himself travelling backwards over two thousand years to a world of pirates and shipwrecks, of plagues and miracles and angry gods. Moving seamlessly between the past and the present, Haddon conjures the worlds of Angelica and her would-be savior in thrilling fashion. As profound as it is entertaining, The Porpoise is a stirring and endlessly inventive novel from one of our finest storytellers.
 

 

Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch
by Rivka Galchen
October 2021

The story begins in 1618, in the German duchy of Württemberg. Plague is spreading. The Thirty Years' War has begun, and fear and suspicion are in the air throughout the Holy Roman Empire. In the small town of Leonberg, Katharina Kepler is accused of being a witch. When the deranged and insipid Ursula Reinbold (or as Katharina calls her, the Werewolf) accuses Katharina of offering her a bitter, witchy drink that has made her ill, Katharina is in trouble. Her scientist son must turn his attention from the music of the spheres to the job of defending his mother.

About the Novel | Resource Guide | Collection ConnectionsPDF icon Discussion Questions

 

We That Are Young
by Preti Taneja
September 2021

When a billionaire hotelier and political operator attempts to pit his three daughters against one another, a brutal struggle for primacy begins in this modern-day take on Shakespeare’s King Lear. Set in contemporary India, where rich men are gods while farmers starve and water is fast running out, We That Are Young is a story about power, status, and the love of a megalomaniac father. A searing exploration of human fallibility, Preti Taneja’s remarkable novel reveals the fragility of the human heart—and its inevitable breaking point.

About the Novel | Resource Guide | Collection ConnectionsPDF icon Discussion Questions

 

The Last True Poets of the Sea
by Julia Drake
August 2021

The Larkin family isn't just lucky-they persevere. At least that's what Violet and her younger brother, Sam, were always told. When the Lyric sank off the coast of Maine, their great-great-great grandmother didn't drown like the rest of the passengers. No, Fidelia swam to shore, fell in love, and founded Lyric, Maine, the town Violet and Sam returned to every summer. But wrecks seem to run in the family: Tall, funny, musical Violet can't stop partying with the wrong people. And, one beautiful summer day, brilliant, sensitive Sam attempts to take his own life. Desperate to make amends, Violet embarks on a wildly ambitious mission: locate the Lyric, lain hidden in a watery grave for over a century. Epic, funny, and sweepingly romantic, The Last True Poets of the Sea is about the strength it takes to swim up from a wreck.

About the Novel | Resource Guide  | Collection ConnectionsPDF icon Discussion Questions
 

Sweet Sorrow
by David Nicholls
June 2021

Sixteen-year-old Charlie Lewis is the kind of boy you don’t remember in the school photograph. But when Fran Fisher bursts into his life, despite himself, Charlie begins to hope. The price of hope, it seems, is Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet learned and performed in a theater troupe over the course of a summer. Poignant, funny, enchanting, devastating, Sweet Sorrow is a tragicomedy about the rocky path to adulthood and the confusion of family life, a celebration of the reviving power of friendship and that brief, searing explosion of first love that can only be looked at directly after it has burned out.

About the Novel | Resource Guide | Collection ConnectionsPDF icon Discussion Questions
 

Circe
by Madeline Miller
May 2021

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves. Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology. With unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language and page-turning suspense, Circe is a triumph of storytelling, an intoxicating epic of family rivalry, palace intrigue, love and loss, as well as a celebration of indomitable female strength in a man's world.

About the Novel | Resource Guide | Collection ConnectionsPDF icon Discussion Questions

 

A Bright Ray of Darkness
by Ethan Hawke
April 2021

Hawke’s narrator is a young man in torment, disgusted with himself after the collapse of his marriage, still half-hoping for a reconciliation that would allow him to forgive himself and move on as he clumsily, and sometimes hilariously, tries to manage the wreckage of his personal life with whiskey and sex. What saves him is theater: in particular, the challenge of performing the role of Hotspur in a production of Henry IV under the leadership of a brilliant director, helmed by one of the most electrifying–and narcissistic–Falstaff’s of all time. Searing and raw, A Bright Ray of Darkness is a novel about shame and beauty and faith, and the moral power of art.

About the Novel | Resource Guide | Collection ConnectionsPDF icon Discussion Questions

 

Hag-Seed
by Margaret Atwood
March 2021

Felix is at the top of his game as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. Now he’s staging a Tempest like no other: not only will it boost his reputation, but it will also heal emotional wounds. Or that was the plan. Instead, after an act of unforeseen treachery, Felix is living in exile in a backwoods hovel, haunted by memories of his beloved lost daughter, Miranda. And also brewing revenge, which, after twelve years, arrives in the shape of a theatre course at a nearby prison. Margaret Atwood’s innovative take on Shakespeare’s play of enchantment, retribution, and second chances leads us on an interactive, illusion-ridden journey filled with new surprises and wonders of its own.

About the Novel | Resource Guide | Collection ConnectionsPDF icon Discussion Questions

 

The Moor's Account
by Laila Lalami
February 2021

In these pages, Laila Lalami brings us the imagined memoirs of the first Black explorer of America: Mustafa al-Zamori, called Estebanico. As he journeys across America with his Spanish companions, the Old World roles of slave and master fall away, and Estebanico remakes himself as an equal, a healer, and a remarkable storyteller. His tale illuminates the ways in which our narratives can transmigrate into history—and how storytelling can offer a chance at redemption and survival.

About the Novel | Resource Guide  | Collection Connections | PDF icon Discussion Questions

 

Hamnet 
by Maggie O'Farrell
December 2020

England, 1580: The Black Death creeps across the land, an ever-present threat, infecting the healthy, the sick, the old and the young, alike. The end of days is near, but life always goes on.

A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists.

About the Novel | Resource Guide | Collection ConnectionsPDF icon Discussion Questions

 

License to Quill
by Jacopo della Quercia
November 2020

License to Quill is a page-turning James Bond-esque spy thriller starring William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe during history's real life Gunpowder Plot. The story follows the fascinating golden age of English espionage, the tumultuous cold war gripping post-Reformation Europe, the cloak-and-dagger politics of Shakespeare's England, and lastly, the mysterious origins of the Bard's most haunting play: Macbeth.

About the Novel | Resource Guide | Collection Connections | PDF icon Discussion Questions

 

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem 
by Maryse Condé
October 2020

This wild and entertaining novel expands on the true story of the West Indian slave Tituba, who was accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, arrested in 1692, and forgotten in jail until the general amnesty for witches two years later. Maryse Condé brings Tituba out of historical silence and creates for her a fictional childhood, adolescence, and old age. She turns her into what she calls "a sort of female hero, an epic heroine, like the legendary ‘Nanny of the maroons,’" who, schooled in the sorcery and magical ritual of obeah, is arrested for healing members of the family that owns her.

About the Novel | Resource Guide | Collection Connections | PDF icon Discussion Questions

 

The Shakespeare Requirement 
by Julie Schumacher
September 2020

Now is the fall of his discontent, as Jason Fitger, newly appointed chair of the English Department of Payne University, takes arms against a sea of troubles, personal and institutional. His ex-wife is sleeping with the dean who must approve whatever modest initiatives he undertakes. The fearsome department secretary Fran clearly runs the show (when not taking in rescue parrots and dogs) and holds plenty of secrets she’s not sharing. The lavishly funded Econ Department keeps siphoning off English’s meager resources and has taken aim at its remaining office space. And Fitger’s attempt to get a mossbacked and antediluvian Shakespeare scholar to retire backfires spectacularly when the press concludes that the Bard is being kicked to the curricular curb. 

About the Novel | Resource Guide | Collection Connections | PDF icon Discussion Questions

 

Station Eleven 
by Emily St. John Mandel
August 2020

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor's early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as The Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor's first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

About the Novel | Resource Guide | Collection Connections | PDF icon Discussion Questions

 

We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program: