How Should a Book Club Be?
I (almost) hate to admit it, but I hate book clubs.
I don’t want to hate them; I don’t want to be the grumpy-cat-of-a-human who stomps all over a beloved (by Oprah!) cultural tradition. But sometimes the truth is unavoidable. Because when you do avoid it, you end up joining a book club.
When I think back over my life so far, it’s hard for me to recall all the book clubs I’ve been a part of, or what they indicated about my life at the time. It’s not unlike someone asking you to recall your sexual partners.
There were the book clubs in my early-to-mid 20s, when it seemed important to maintain a semblance of intellectualism as my everyday habits became more pedestrian and slovenly and fun. Then there were the ones in my late 20s when I had accepted my pedestrian and slovenly and fun everyday habits and wanted to get together with a group of equally pedestrian and slovenly and fun professional ladies (still my favorite kind of people) to drink wine and dip crackers into endless dips—so many dips!—as we kind of discussed the book we were meant to be discussing.
My participation devolved progressively until, finally, I was in a book club called Bookless Club wherein we did all of the things you did in a book club except discuss the book (which is all the things you do in a book club)—except we took this one step further and decided not to even name a book! This was my favorite book club.
It’s strange because I love reading. I don’t consider it a chore. It’s not something I put on my to-do list for “betterment.” It’s not something I do if I can find the time. It’s just something I do—something that makes me feel better, something that makes me feel more like me. My natural inclination has always been to pick up a book.
I also love hearing about what friends are reading. I have one friend who, instead of asking how I’m doing when I see him, will often say, “What are you reading?” This tickles me every time. I’ll tell him, then ask what he’s reading, and then we talk about the books.
So how on earth is it that I hate book clubs? And how on earth is it that you, as a book lover, find book clubs questionable, too?
The evolution of book clubs
Depending on what you consider a book club, you could argue that the first American book club was established before there even was a United States, back in 1634, by a group of pilgrims coming to the colonies. In this one, religious zealot Anne Hutchinson organized a group of ladies to discuss, you guessed it, that week’s boat sermon.
Later on, starting in the late 1700s, a tradition of women meeting to discuss the belles lettres of the day—basically, a fancy phrase for literary writing and writing about literary writing—was established.
In the 1760s, Hannah Adams, the first woman to make a living as a writer in the U.S., developed what’s often thought of as the first Woman’s Club. This more or less consisted of a bunch of Massachusetts women coming together to read and discuss others’ texts (more belles lettres!) as well as to share their own writing. Roughly seven decades later, in 1839, famed—and famously tragic—badass scholar Margaret Fuller began hosting something she called “Conversations” in Boston, also for women. (She charged admission for this series—an early feminist’s gotta eat, y’all.) This program went on for about five years.
It should come as no surprise that women were at the forefront of forming these modern-day book club predecessors. They didn’t have access to higher education; and discussing thoughts, ideas, and philosophy was the very bedrock of the kind of classical education that dominated at the time. By extension, it should come as no surprise that today’s book clubs have been predominantly, though not exclusively, adopted by women. (And no, I don’t believe liking or disliking them has anything to do with feminism any more than I believe liking or disliking pink has anything to do with feminism—unless you make it otherwise, it’s arbitrary.)
But back to olden times: By 1878, the reach of book clubs had expanded along with the country. A 1978 New York Times article celebrated the nation’s longest continually running book club, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, which turned 100 that August. In the predominate model of the early 20th century, there was a main chapter with many smaller circles spread out nationally. The members of all of those circles subscribed to the same “reading course.” At its peak, the Circle reached 750,000 members and collected dues. In the article marking the centennial, the newspaper of record noted that the Circle was no longer singular; it was “one among more than 150 adult book clubs with an annual business of $374.4 million in 1977.”
Of course, in the later 20th century, book clubs began spreading to living rooms, offering entertainment, companionship, and the chance for like-minded tete-a-tetes in an era before the internet.
But it wasn’t until 1996 that a national book club became all the rage once again. That’s when Oprah Winfrey launched her best-seller-making juggernaut, Oprah’s Book Club, with Jacquelyn Mitchard’s The Deep End of the Ocean, as her inaugural pick. This marked what we’ll call Peak Book Club. (Or maybe PBC was in 2018, when the Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen vehicle Book Club hit theaters.) Regardless. While Oprah’s Book Club was widely and fairly credited with getting more adults to read, it was not without its controversies. Remember the Jonathan Franzen kerfuffle? The James Frey meltdown? Oh, what schadenfreude joy-a!
The Amazon industrial complex of modern-day book clubs
Maybe these last two Oprah examples can help us get to the heart of the problem with book clubs: Books as big business for big businesses. Or really, for one big business.
The choosing of a book club book is fraught—especially in the days of the if-you-like-this-you-may-like-this algorithmic mediocrity.
Personally, I don’t want to read another hardcover by that Franzen dude (no offense, Jonathan) or Amor Towles or Anthony Doerr or Jess Walter (or insert another white dude’s name here whose tome is bestseller list-destined already). I don’t want to read another page-turner with a focus group-derived title scrawled across the cover in flowery cursive, or one that was given five stars by your great aunt Connie on Goodreads because it was a quick read. I don’t want to read another book that has a list of suggested discussion questions printed in the second edition in the back. And I definitely don’t want to read historical fiction.
Maybe what I’m saying is, I don’t want to be told by a human I love and respect to read the books that culture is already telling me I should love and respect. (I’d rather read some belles lettres.)
One of the greatest joys of reading is discovering something new. That’s why it’s so satisfying to hear what a friend is reading or to get a personal recommendation. Sharing a book recommendation is like sharing a secret about yourself. If a book is already massively popular, no bond is developed by being forced to read it along with a dozen other people for the purposes of a non-organic discussion. A bond could be formed, however, by a friend telling me one-on-one that she liked that massively popular book and why. There is nothing inherently wrong with a massively popular book; and if you think that there is, please keep that sentiment from my Harry Potter collection.
But if we accept the popularity prognosis as the problem with book clubs, can it change if the selection is curated more carefully? Let’s say each person in the book club gets a turn to pick the book that’s read without input from others, thereby removing the group-settling phenomenon.
This is certainly a better start! Under this method, everyone in the group has been exposed to a text they may not have thought to read on their own. And the selection offers a little window into the heart and soul of another member. That’s great!
But now, fast forward to the meeting: What happens in the discussion? Does a particularly dominant member of the club discount the selection because, for example, the book’s narrator is unlikable? (Oh, the curse of the wretched “unlikable narrator” trope!) Perhaps other members agree with this point, and there’s a bit of a pile-up. Even if other members disagree and defend this “unlikable” narrator, the damage has been done. Has it not?
Quickly, the interpretation of the book is molded by the group, because, for some reason, people often think a consensus of some sort must be reached in book club. The recommendation becomes the opposite of a love letter; it becomes the note that’s passed in class and confiscated by the teacher and read out loud for all to deride.
A modest proposal for the One-Way Book Club
I do not mean to suggest that an informed discussion of literature should be discounted—it shouldn’t! Debating the merits of a work of art is always legitimate and can, indeed, lead to a higher understanding and consciousness.
There’s just something about group think regarding a literary work that seems to make book clubs frustrating at best and dangerous at worst. (Dare we equate this with the more-apparent-than-ever dangers of populism?)
Perhaps a truer exchange would come from one person talking about a book they loved, followed by another person talking about a book they loved. If you’re intrigued by the mind of that other person, you better believe you’re adding that book to your reading pile—likely with the intention of talking to that other person about the book in the future.
Maybe that’s why the Oprah model* works. Not just because we consider Oprah all-knowing and powerful and wise (much like the best teacher in a classroom, or say, the feminist scholar Margaret Fuller who, make no mistake, was the boss of those 1840s Boston conversations). But because her model most closely mimics one person picking a book for another. It most closely mimics one person saying, albeit to millions, “Hey, this book really spoke to me; I think it might speak to you, too. If it does, tune into my show when I talk about it with its author and publisher. If you’re interested in listening, I’d love to illuminate why this work spoke to me, and why I think it could speak to you, too. Also, if it doesn’t speak to you, that’s totally fine! No hard feelings—change the channel! There are nearly endless books in the world—you should find the ones you enjoy, and I don’t want you to feel forced to spend your time on a book that doesn’t speak to you.”
I suppose you could call this model the One-Way Book Club. (Here, I must credit my very wise partner for coming up with this titillating title.) While this phrase may seem exclusionary, it may actually be the most inclusionary of all.
After all, what could be more intimate than a secret shared from one person to another without intermediaries muddying the source material, or without others piling their interpretations onto it? Just author to person, author to person which, in the end, equals person to person. You can tell it’s true thanks to this very sophisticated literary transitive property equation I’ve developed:
Book → Person A +Person A → Person B = Book → Person B
And in the extra-special alchemy of literary math, there’s more!
Book → Person A = Person A → Person B
All this to say, if anyone wants to invite me to a One-Way Book Club—in which everyone shares a book they love—I will definitely say yes. And then I’ll eat all the dips.
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- Note: I am not an affiliate of Oprah Winfrey nor do I profit from any of the products she promotes and have only just now realized that I must like her even more than I thought I did.