“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend.— GROUCHO MARX
Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
It’s a rare rabid reader who isn’t in a book club nowadays. Countless book groups abound worldwide, mostly made up of women who meet monthly to share thoughts on books and perhaps some food and wine. Especially wine.
In Denver, book group fever inspired two University of Denver alumnae and former professors, Ellen Moore and Kira Stevens, to write “Good Books Lately: The One-Stop Resource for Book Groups and Other Greedy Readers.” Its fun, humorous and stimulating advice still holds true nearly 20 years later, with tips on starting a club, moderating a club and the art of analytical reading.
Women have gathered to read, ponder and share their views on texts since at least 1634, when English emigrant Anne Hutchinson started weekly meetings with Boston women to discuss sermons and express her perspectives on theology.
Hutchinson merits some book group gratitude. Her popular preaching defied gender roles, gathering women into groups that threatened male elders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Heresy! So, she was convicted, banished and slandered for decades afterward.
A big hat tip, too, to Oprah Winfrey, who launched her book club in 1996 and whose enthusiasm for tomes has spurred many people to resume reading, some for the first time since school days.
A lot of celebrities have followed suit with virtual book groups, from Reese Witherspoon’s club on women-written fiction to Emma Watson’s focus on equality and feminism.
But Oprah has 25 years in this game and nary a niche. Her recommendations have ranged from the nonfiction “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson to “The Water Dancer,” the debut novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates. She’s also been big on classics, such as John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.”
“I guess there are never enough books.”— JOHN STEINBECK
“She’s been doing it for a long time now, and I think there’s much more consciousness behind her book club than other celebrities’. Her books are meaty; she gets people to pick up things they otherwise wouldn’t,” says Stacey Riegelhaupt, former book club outreach coordinator for Denver’s famed Tattered Cover bookstores.
Bringing people together
Pre-pandemic, 15 to 23 clubs would meet in the Tattered Cover’s stores, Riegelhaupt recalls.
She would choose 20 to 25 books for a club to consider. “Many clubs want to plan for a whole year in advance. A lot of clubs mix it up—classics, new fiction, nonfiction.”
She recommends a club have four to six members, “though I’ve seen successful three-member book clubs. I would limit it at 12—if you’ve got the right people.
“Switching genres … stimulates more conversation,” Riegelhaupt adds. “That’s really what a book club is for. I’m excited about book clubs because they get people to read together. It is a good way to get people to read things they wouldn’t otherwise read.”
It’s also a great way to unite people in a country where 90% of survey respondents cite very strong or strong political divisions, and 71% cite very strong or strong conflicts between people of different ethnic or racial backgrounds. So says an October survey by the Pew Research Center.
“I read for pleasure, and that is the moment I learn the most.”— MARGARET ATWOOD
The New York Times has guesstimated that 5 million people are in book clubs worldwide. Considering the many niche groups, that doesn’t seem excessive.
“Good Books Lately” lists many such clubs, from Serious-Minded, Literary Book Group (“For Culture We Must Suffer”) to the “Been Together Many, Many Years” Book Group, plus the groups for gay men, Blacks, mothers of toddlers, churches, synagogues and the lesbian/feminist book group. A Google search yields tons of online options, among them a book club affiliated with the Clare Boothe Luce Center for Conservative Women and the Liberal Ladies Book Club, created during the 2016 presidential campaign to offer “nasty women” a forum for discussing empowerment and equality.
“Ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.”— RAINER MARIA RILKE
Not a joiner? Some readers like to read at their own pace and savor their thoughts about a book. They can find other viewpoints in book reviews or on a #bookstagram, the Instagram book blogs created by devoted readers.
They might not get the companionship or sense of community that a book group provides, but they’re doing the most important thing. They’re reading.
Book of the Month Club, a boon for women for 96 years
You don’t get camaraderie either from the Book of the Month Club. Founded in 1926, it’s still going strong, with more than 100,000 subscribers reported in 2017. You pay $12.50 to $16.67 a month and choose a hard-cover book from five recommendations. The service also can help you set up your own book club.
The club has been key for women whose cultures excluded them from institutionalized learning and higher education, says Susan Schulten, a professor of history and of gender and women’s studies in DU’s College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.
From the start, women vastly outnumbered men as subscribers, Schulten notes.
“The club offered readers access to texts of literary ‘quality’ as deemed by middle or highbrow elites. Though controversial at the time, the enormous subscription to the club showed publishers that there was money to be made in cultivating book discussions,” she says.
“The Book of the Month ‘Club’ sought to evoke a tradition, and thereby set its members apart from a country that was increasingly diverse and impersonal. It also called back to a tradition of the late 19th century of women’s study clubs, local groups that sought to learn about the classics and thereby identify their members as cultured.
“It expanded the readership for serious books, much in the same way Oprah’s imprimatur matters so much to readers (and publishers and authors) today. Perhaps the ‘best books’ lists that are coming out now in the nation’s leading media outlets serve something of the same function,” Schulten adds.
Women affect book sales, publishing
While reading groups surely have affected women, the reverse may be true too, she says.
“What effect did these women have on the publishing industry? What titles flourished as a result of coordinated female reading?” she asks.
And when did women enter the book business? Officially, on Oct. 29, 1917—two days after about 25,000 people marched down Fifth Avenue in New York for women’s suffrage and three years before American women got the right to vote.
“Excluded from joining the all-male booksellers’ organizations and spurred by the fight for women’s right to vote, they banded together to fight for equality for women.
“The Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) was formed,” says the group’s website—104 years later.
‘Great Books’ not necessarily great
The desire for edification persisted well after the debut of the Book of the Month Club. A few decades later, the Great Books of the Western World attempted to elevate brows even higher with 54 volumes featuring 443 works—many of them deadly dull—by 74 white male authors.
The program was launched in 1952 by Robert Hutchins, the handsome, charming former president of the University of Chicago, with sidekick Mortimer Adler and the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Their marketing ensured prospective buyers that reading these books would not only make you look smart, but also would make you popular and get you a promotion, writes Alex Beam in “A Great Idea at the Time,” a 2008—what else?—book.
“‘Classic’—a book which people praise and don’t read.”— MARK TWAIN
At least 1 million sets were sold, but sales slid in the late 1960s, and an attempted 1990 relaunch was a disaster, Beam writes. (If your club needs a good book, Beam’s is hilarious.)
Indeed, Google the Great Books today, and you’ll find plenty for sale on eBay, from $9.99 for one book to $789 for a full set of the 1990 reprinted tomes.
Many other movements, too, were precursors to today’s book clubs—from Chautauquas to sewing circles.
The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison, noted on Dec. 3, 1847: “Sewing Circles are among the best means for agitating and keeping alive the question of anti-slavery … A friend in a neighboring town recently said to us, Our Sewing Circle is doing finely, and contributes very much to keep up the agitation of the subject. Some one of the members generally reads an anti-slavery book or paper to the others during the meeting, and thus some who don’t get a great deal of anti-slavery at home have an opportunity of hearing it at the circle.”
Today’s book clubs often favor cogitation over agitation, but a book club’s infusion of knowledge, good company and wine also can include activism. Well-behaved women rarely make history, the bumper sticker says. But a lot of well-read, highly educated women in book groups might disagree. So would those sewing-circle abolitionists, surely.