May 25, 2022

When it comes to book clubs, the plot always thickens

“Apart from a dog, a book is man’s best friend.
Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read.

—GROUCHO MARX

He’s a rare rabid reader who isn’t in a book club these days. Countless book groups abound around the world, mostly made up of women who meet monthly to share their thoughts on books and perhaps food and wine. Especially the wine.

In Denver, book group fever inspired two University of Denver alumni and former professors, Ellen Moore and Kira Stevens, to write “Good Books Lately: The One-Stop Resource for Book Groups and Other Greedy Readers.” . His fun, humorous, and thought-provoking advice is still relevant nearly 20 years later, with advice on club building, club running, 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 began weekly meetings with Boston women to discuss sermons and express her views. on theology.

Hutchinson deserves some gratitude from the book group. Her popular preaching challenged gender roles, gathering women into groups that threatened the former males of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Heresy! Thus, she was condemned, banished and slandered for decades thereafter.

Hats off also to Oprah Winfrey, who started her book club in 1996 and whose enthusiasm for the books has inspired many people to take up reading again, some for the first time since school.

Many celebrities have followed suit with virtual book groups, from Reese Witherspoon’s club on fiction written by women to Emma Watson’s focus on equality and feminism.

But Oprah is 25 years old in this game and is not a niche. Her recommendations range from the non-fiction “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson to “The Water Dancer,” the debut novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates. She was also fond of the classics, such as “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck.

“I guess there are never enough books.”

— JOHN STEINBECK

“She’s been doing it for a long time now, and I think there’s a lot more awareness behind her book club than other celebrities.” His books are meaty; it gets people to choose things they otherwise wouldn’t have found,” says Stacey Riegelhaupt, former book club coordinator for Denver’s famed Tattered Cover bookstores.

Bring people together

Before the pandemic, 15 to 23 clubs met at Tattered Cover stores, Riegelhaupt recalls.

She would choose 20-25 pounds for a club to consider. “A lot of clubs want to plan a whole year ahead. A lot of clubs mix things up – classics, new fiction, non-fiction.

She recommends that a club have four to six members, “although I’ve seen three-member book clubs succeed. I would limit it to 12, if you have the right people.

“Changing genres… stimulates more conversation,” adds Riegelhaupt. “That’s really what a book club is for. I’m excited about book clubs because they allow people to read together. It’s a great way to get people to read things they wouldn’t read otherwise.

It’s also a great way to unite people in a country where 90% of 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 from the Pew Research Center.

“I read for fun, and this is when I learn the most.”

—MARGARET ATWOOD

The New York Times estimated that 5 million people are in book clubs worldwide. Given the many niche groups, this does not seem excessive.

“Good Books Lately” lists many such clubs, from the Serious-Minded, Literary Book Group (“For Culture We Must Suffer”) to the “Been Together Many, Many Years Book Group”, to gay groups , blacks, mothers. toddlers, churches, synagogues and lesbian/feminist book group. A Google search yields tons of online options, including a book club affiliated with the Clare Boothe Luce Center for Conservative Women and the Liberal Ladies Book Club, established during the 2016 presidential campaign to provide “mean women” with a discussion forum on empowerment and equality. .

“Ah, how good it is to be among people who read.”

— RAINER MARIA RILKE

You are not a carpenter? Some readers like to read at their own pace and savor their thoughts on a book. They can find other viewpoints in book reviews or on a #bookstagram, the Instagram book blogs created by dedicated readers.

They may not have the companionship or sense of community that a book group provides, but they do the most important thing. They read.

Book of the Month Club, a boon for women for 96 years

You also don’t get any fellowship from the book of the month club. Founded in 1926, it’s still going strong, with over 100,000 subscribers reported in 2017. You pay $12.50 to $16.67 per month and choose a hardcover book from five recommendations. The service can also help you start your own book club.

The club has been essential for women whose cultures excluded them from institutionalized learning and higher education, says Susan Schulten, professor of history and gender and women’s studies at the College of Arts, Sciences human and social aspects of the DU.

Early on, women vastly outnumbered men as subscribers, notes Schulten.

“The club offered readers access to “quality” literary texts judged by the average or intellectual elites. Although controversial at the time, the club’s huge subscription showed publishers that there was money to be made by cultivating book discussions,” she says.

“The Book of the Month ‘Club’ sought to evoke a tradition, and thus to differentiate its members from an increasingly diverse and impersonal country. It also recalled a late 19th century tradition of women’s study clubs, local groups that sought to learn about the classics and thus identify their members as cultured.

“It broadened the readership of serious books, in the same way Oprah’s imprimatur matters so much to readers (and publishers and authors) today. Perhaps the “best book” lists now appearing in major media outlets across the country serve something of the same function,” Schulten adds.

Women affect book sales and publishing

While reading groups certainly affected women, the reverse may also be true, she says.

“What effect have these women had on the publishing industry? Which titles have thrived on women’s coordinated reading? ” she asks.

And when did women enter the world of books? Officially, October 29, 1917, two days after an estimated 25,000 people marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City for women’s suffrage and nine years before American women won the right to vote.

“Excluded from all-male bookseller organizations and driven by the fight for women’s suffrage, they have come together to fight for women’s equality.

“The Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) was formed,” the group’s website reads, 104 years later.

“Great Books” Aren’t Necessarily Great

The desire for edification persisted long after the beginnings of the Book of the Month Club. A few decades later, the Great Books of the Western World attempted to raise eyebrows even higher with 54 volumes containing 443 works – many of them deadly boring – by 74 white male authors.

The program was started in 1952 by Robert Hutchins, the handsome and charming former president of the University of Chicago, with his sidekick Mortimer Adler and the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Their marketing assured potential buyers that reading these books would not only make you look smart, but also make you popular and earn you promotion, writes Alex Beam in “A Great Idea at the Time,” a book by 2008 – what else? .

“‘Classic’ – a book that people praise and don’t read.”

– MARK TWAIN

At least 1 million sets were sold, but sales plummeted in the late 1960s and a 1990 revival attempt 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 complete set of the 1990 reprinted tomes.

Many other movements were also precursors to today’s book clubs, from Chautauquas to sewing circles.

The Liberator, an abolitionist journal published by William Lloyd Garrison, noted on December 3, 1847: “Sewing circles are among the best means of stirring and keeping alive the anti-slavery question…A friend of a nearby town recently told us, Our sewing circle is doing well and is doing a lot to keep the subject buzzing. One of the members usually reads an anti-slavery book or article to the others during the meeting, and so some who don’t get much anti-slavery at home have the opportunity to hear it at the circle.

Today’s book clubs often promote cogitation rather than restlessness, but a book club’s infusion of knowledge, good company, and wine can also include activism. Well-behaved women rarely make history, the sticker says. But many cultured and highly educated women in reading groups might disagree. So would those abolitionists in the couture circle, surely.