Posted May 20, 2013 by in Bibliotherapy

What to read? (Part 9) Reading Together

Mary Cassatt's Nurse Reading to a Little Girl, 1895. (Public Domain {PD-1923})

Mary Cassatt’s Nurse Reading to a Little Girl, 1895. (Public Domain {PD-1923})

Reading is usually seen as a silent, solitary activity, but it doesn’t have to be. Whether you’re reading aloud with a child or a friend, having a spirited discussion in a book club setting, or joining in with a “One Book, One City” program or a World Book Night event, reading together is a unique way to experience the power of literature.

A history of book clubs

The book club as we know it today dates back as far as the eighteenth century.[1] It originated as a kind of gentlemen’s social club – only for those men of high enough status and wealth to be both literate and able to afford new books. London’s coffee houses, well stocked with reading material including newspapers and political pamphlets, provided a particularly important forum for gentlemen’s discussion of the issues of the day. In “On Book-Clubs,” an anonymous 1812 article in The Belfast Monthly Magazine, the author sings the praises of literary discussion groups:

“Perhaps few things, in our day, have contributed so much to this very desirable object [of civilization], as the establishing of reading societies, commonly called Book-Clubs. So conspicuous is this, that the people of those districts where they have been held for a length of time, are far superior in general information, to those in which none have ever been established.”[2]

Book clubs can meet anywhere: here's a group discussing books about Cuba, aboard the GTMO Queen in Guantánamo Bay. (Photo credit: Army Staff Sgt. Blair Heusdens)

Book clubs can meet anywhere: here’s a group discussing books about Cuba, aboard the GTMO Queen in Guantánamo Bay. (Photo credit: Army Staff Sgt. Blair Heusdens)

Belfast’s book clubs were seen to perform the vital social role of increasing general knowledge and thus producing informed and politically active citizens.

Readers who were not among the cultural élite but still wanted to be part of literary discussions could band together to purchase books for an informal lending system; the New York Society Library and Boston Library Society – both still in existence today, the latter as the Boston Athenæum – began in this manner. Parisian literary salons, where women like Madame de Staël (1766-1817) hosted prominent literary and artistic figures, may well be the direct forerunner of today’s female-dominated book clubs. Women’s clubs that initially focused on crafts and cooking skills expanded to consider their members’ intellectual development. Dennis Adams, Information Services Coordinator for Beaufort County Library in South Carolina, believes the county’s 30-member Clover Club literary society, founded by Mary Elizabeth Waterhouse in 1891, is the earliest example of the women’s living-room book discussion club.


Books by mail

In 1926 one of the most famous and enduring American cultural institutions, the Book-of-the-Month Club, was founded, quickly followed by nearly a dozen competitors, including the Literary Guild of America in 1927, and the Book League of America in 1930. Within just a few years the Book-of-the-Month Club had over 100,000 subscribers and the Literary Guild about 70,000. Each mail-order scheme worked roughly the same way: after an introductory offer, members were entitled to receive twelve books by post per year, and were always given the option to decline the month’s selection and choose an alternative.

A letter to President Kennedy, informing him that his book Profiles in Courage had been chosen for the Book-of-the-Month Club.

The letter informing President Kennedy that his book Profiles in Courage had been chosen for the Book-of-the-Month Club.

The Book-of-the-Month Club’s selection board was headed by Henry Seidel Canby, last heard opining on bestsellers in my bibliotherapy article last week. Along with a panel of distinguished American critics, the club benefited from a foreign Advisory Committee that included H.G. Wells, Sigrid Undset, André Maurois, and Thomas Mann. In his survey of the first decade of mail-order book clubs, John Farrar pinpointed the difficulties the editorial committee had in selecting worthy but accessible books:

“They must both lead and coax. Their announced intention, and as a matter of fact their real desire, is to select books of literary value. On the other hand they wish legitimately to reach a large group of people and they cannot give too weighty meat all of the time. They must choose a varied fare.”[3]

Farrar’s is a good summation of the perpetual challenge any book club has in striking a balance between literary quality and popular appeal.

As early as 1929 there was a critical backlash against the homogenizing effect of postal book clubs. One publishing company refused to enter its books into consideration for the Book-of-the-Month Club, arguing that the schemes were doing financial injury to regular booksellers and a sort of intellectual harm to readers by limiting their choices:

“New authors – many of great promise – also are injured because of the concentration of publicity on the so-called books of the month and the difficulty of getting a hearing in competition with the noisily exploited monthly selections…[Book clubs tailor] their selections to the average taste of subscribers, with a probable downward tendency in quality. A long impressive list could already be made of books of high quality that would have been missed by subscribers limiting their reading to the books chosen for them by the clubs.”[4]

It seemed that the book clubs might be, as Joseph W. Kappel feared, “lowering literary standards and reading tastes” through their reliance on “‘bestsellerism,’ which strives for higher sales for fewer books, thus neglecting the fine books of limited appeal.”[5] Indeed, a perusal of the Book-of-the-Month Club’s website reinforces the notion that they are more interested in supporting those books that have already made it to bestseller status than in introducing readers to undiscovered talent.


The book club today

Book clubs nowadays vary from the traditional – small, informal meetings in members’ living rooms – to the technological: web forums and nationwide televised discussions. Libraries remain ardent supporters of book clubs in all their forms; many public libraries host their own book clubs, or order sets of popular books that can then be borrowed exclusively by reading groups. Bookstores and newspapers also play host to physical or virtual book discussions. The opportunities for getting involved in book chats with fellow readers are nearly endless now.[6]

A "5 Minutes for Books" reading event in Łódź, Poland in April 2012. (Photo credit: Ixtlilto)

A “5 Minutes for Books” reading event in Łódź, Poland in April 2012. (Photo credit: Ixtlilto)

I belong to two book clubs: one, made up of eight colleagues, meets in person once a month after work; the other is a family discussion group that convenes via biweekly e-mail conversations. In my work book club we have discussed everything from J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey to the graphic novel The Rabbi’s Cat, by Joann Sfar. Meeting in person has some distinct advantages: it encourages small talk and socializing, often over food, and so promotes a more informal atmosphere in which people are comfortable speaking.

One useful strategy my work book club occasionally adopts is to have the members take turn choosing books; ideally that month’s selector would then act as the meeting facilitator, gathering background information, providing a brief introduction to the book and its author, and guiding the discussion with a set of pre-prepared questions. I’m no expert, but from my limited involvement in book clubs I can say that it’s better to choose a book that polarizes opinion – that some members will love and some will hate – than to choose something everyone will think is great; universal admiration, as you might expect, does little to foster debate.

Web book discussions can be, paradoxically, more or less formal than physical meetings: respondents have time to mull over their ideas about a book and compose a coherent answer; on the other hand, many just contribute spontaneous reactions, peppered with unsupported opinions, slang, and typos. Whether online or in person, book clubs should be encouraging people to think deeply about what they read – going well beyond that tired like/don’t like dichotomy – and consider how their personal responses can feed into a more general, nuanced literary critique.


The Idiot box?

Oprah Winfrey at her 50th birthday party at the Hotel Bel Air in 2004. (Photo credit: Alan Light)

Oprah Winfrey in 2004. (Photo credit: Alan Light)

Some of today’s best-known reading programs have sprung from television shows. Oprah Winfrey’s book club began as a regular segment on her talk show in 1996 and, despite a couple of hiatuses and the end of her network television presence in 2011, the club persists today in its online “2.0” version, with an intriguing mixture of highbrow and populist choices. Selection for Winfrey’s book club causes a book to rocket up the sales charts – with sometimes peculiar results, such as Leo Tolstoy having a #1 bestseller with Anna Karenina in 2004, 94 years after his death. In fact, the term “the Oprah effect” was coined for this very phenomenon: through the publicity a book got on Winfrey’s show or website, and the subsequent flurry of word-of-mouth recommendation and general buzz, it would become, almost without exception, a shoo-in bestseller.

Married couple Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan’s book suggestions have had a similar boosting effect on sales in the UK, through their seasonal Richard & Judy book club, which began in 2004 as a feature of their daytime chat show. Their ability to instantly propel books onto the bestseller lists has made them, arguably, the most important people in the British publishing industry, Stuart Jeffries concluded in his Guardian article about their book club.

Although Richard & Judy and Winfrey have a huge impact on sales figures in their respective countries, they are, of course, not without controversy. In 2008 novelist Andrew O’Hagan accused Richard and Judy of “treating [readers] as if they are stupid,” thus adding to a general “coarsening” of literary choice. Jonathan Franzen got on Winfrey’s bad side in 2001 by questioning the inclusion of his novel The Corrections as an Oprah book club pick alongside overtly ‘female,’ schmaltzy books. However, their mild feud ended in 2010 when Winfrey chose Franzen’s next novel, Freedom, for her book club and invited him onto her show. And, of course, James Frey will never live down the scandal of Winfrey exposing his ‘memoir’ A Million Little Pieces as fictional. Whether for good or ill, television alumni such as Winfrey are key players in deciding how books are marketed and sold in the modern world.


Mass reading events

Winfrey’s and Richard & Judy’s book clubs are part of a wider recent reading phenomenon that UK-based researchers Dr. Danielle Fuller and Dr. DeNel Rehberg Sedo (of the Beyond the Book project) have dubbed “Mass reading events,” or MREs. The first high-profile MRE, initiated by Nancy Pearl in 1998, was called “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book” – with the inaugural choice being The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks. The idea certainly took off; in 2007 the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book documented over 400 such “One Book, One City” programs taking place across the USA.

Choosing one book that is appropriate for all of a city’s citizens to read presents a huge challenge. In 2002 controversy erupted in New York City over two rival options for the city’s One Book scheme; both The Color of Water, James McBride’s memoir by about growing up biracial in Brooklyn, and Native Speaker, Chang-rae Lee’s debut novel about Korean-American immigrants in Queens, were thought to have the potential to offend particular ethnic groups. Outspoken literary critic (and native New Yorker) Harold Bloom pooh-poohed the very idea of communal reading projects: “I don’t like these mass reading bees… It is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once.”

A library World Book Night 2013 display (Photo credit: Franklin Park Library)

A World Book Night 2013 display at Franklin Park Library, Illinois. (Photo credit: Franklin Park Library)

Nonetheless, the “One Book” idea remains a popular one. For its 2013 “Cityread” London has chosen Sebastian Faulks’s 2010 novel A Week in December, his smart, kaleidoscopic look at contemporary British society, set amidst the financial crisis. Cityread describes itself as a “campaign to spread a love of books and reading to the widest possible audience throughout our capital.” The annual World Book Night event, which takes place in both the USA and the UK (and in Germany as well) on April 23, World Book Day, mobilizes passionate book advocates to go out into their communities and give away free copies of one of 20-30 varied and well-loved titles. As with Cityread, the point is simply to encourage a love for books, while also counteracting the decline of reading as a regular pastime for adults.

One Book, One College” schemes have also proved a great success. The idea is for incoming freshmen to be assigned one thought-provoking book for summer reading that might then serve as a springboard for discussion during orientation activities or first-year classes. The common read could bring up current issues such as poverty, injustice, environmental degradation, war, or the Middle East, and ideally would present a picture of diverse experience. Robin Hart Ruthenbeck, director of campus activities at Carleton College, suggested that when choosing an all-college read one “should look for meaningful encounters with difference, whether that’s difference in race or ethnicity, or socioeconomic background or political ideology.”[7]

Preparing for The Big Read at Hiram College in 2010. (Photo credit: Kasey-Samuel Adams)

Preparing for The Big Read at Hiram College in 2010. (Photo credit: Kasey-Samuel Adams)

The National Endowment for the Arts is another resource for starting “The Big Read” events in local communities; since 2007 it has provided over 1,000 grants to fund kick-off events and publicity. The spirit of the Big Read carries on in many contexts, including the annual faith-based arts festival where I volunteer in the UK, Greenbelt. This will be my third year running the festival’s Big Read, which encourages all attendants to read one book in advance and be thinking about it in the months leading up to the festival weekend itself, when we run a book club discussion.

In 2011 I chose Exile by Richard North Patterson, a thriller about the Israel/Palestine situation, which is one of the festival’s recurring campaign issues. Last summer we discussed Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden (winner of Britain’s 2012 Arthur C. Clarke award), a science fiction gem that asks probing questions about evolution, mythology, the environment, and human knowledge and meaning. As well as choosing books that would provoke intense discussion, I also tried to find ones that resonated with the annual festival themes: 2011’s was “Dreams of Home,” a meaningful subject for both Jews in exile and stateless Palestinians; 2012’s was “Saving Paradise,” which was appropriate given Beckett’s subversion of the myth of Eden-as-Paradise. Both Big Read events were fun and rewarding, with 20-30 attendants sharing diverse opinions and experiences. I’m looking forward to this summer’s book club already.


Alone or together, just read!

We’ve seen that there are particular constraints and delights to the communal reading experience. The surprisingly long history of the book club shows it in traditional and technological guises, taking place anywhere from a cozy living room or classroom to an all-city launch. Chatting about books with other people will always bring up new ideas and give you the impetus to reconsider important issues. Read a book on your own, for the pure pleasure of it, but then find someone else who’s willing to discuss it with you; you never know what you’ll learn.



Next time: In my last installment of this “What to read?” series, I ponder the art of re-reading.


[1] See here and here for helpful overlapping histories of the book club.

[2] [Censor]. “On Book-Clubs,” The Belfast Monthly Magazine 9.49 (1812): 98.

[3] Farrar, John. “Ten Years of the Book Clubs,” The English Journal 25.5 (1936): 347-355.

[4] An open letter sent out by the Frederick A. Stokes Company, quoted in Stokes, Frederick A. “The Case against the Book Clubs,” The North American Review 228.1 (1929): 47-56.

[5] Kappel, Joseph W. “Book Clubs and the Evaluation of Books,” The Public Opinion Quarterly 12.2 (1948): 243-252.

[6] Some of the many helpful book club resources online are: the American Library Association’s “Let’s Talk About It” program, Reading Group Choices, Booktalk.org, BookBrowse, and The Guardian newspaper’s book club.

[7] For some interesting perspectives on the “One Book, One College” movement, see the articles here and here.

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Rebecca Foster

An American transplant to Reading, England – a fitting place for a fiendish bibliophile. After six years as a library assistant, I am recklessly embarking on a freelance writing career. I review books for Kirkus Indie, The Bookbag, For Books' Sake, We Love This Book, and Bookmarks magazine, and also volunteer with Greenbelt Festival's literature program. I read everything from theology to popular science, but some favorite genres are literary fiction, biography and memoir, historical fiction, graphic novels, and nature writing. Check out all my articles.