Though we often talk about reading as a solitary act, meeting and discussing books has long been a way to exchange ideas. In the 17th and 18th centuries, these literary gatherings were high class affairs. People named them after the rooms in which they were held, which is why they were often called “cabinets” and “salons”. Aristocrats would even hold these forums in their bedrooms, and people would lounge while discussing the artistic and intellectual movements of the day. Of course less wealthy individuals also read together. People studied their religious texts in groups, and they often spent evenings reading items aloud from newspapers or the latest novels.
Modern day book clubs function a bit differently. According to a survey by Bookbrowse, typical book club attendees are educated women over forty-five years old. The book clubs may exist solely in electronic form, may have a base in someone’s house, or may meet in a public space such as a library or coffeehouse. Oprah’s Book Club, perhaps the largest example of a current book club, engaged hundreds of thousands of readers. For example, after Oprah added Say You’re Not One of Them to the Club’s reading list, the book’s print run went from 77,000 to 780,000.
Though there is a financial barrier to them, we can also think of literary subscription boxes as a type of contemporary book club. After all, subscribers to many of the these boxes receive the same or similar titles, and often people share their experience of opening their boxes on the internet via blog posts or vlogs. The boxes themselves may not be communal, but the way people interact with them often is. (The book a month subscription service is not an entirely new idea. Harry Scherman began his “Book of the Month” club in 1926, and you can still subscribe to it today.)
I have never officially participated in a reading club – I enjoy having control over my reading materials to much – but they seem like a wonderful way for people to engage in books. What has your experience with book clubs been like? With all of the connections that technology has given us, it seems like there is more and more potential for new types of literary circles, and I’d love to explore that more.
Frank Weston Benson, “The Grey Room,” 1913.
Harriett Pettifore Brims, “Two Women Reading on a Verandah at Ingram,” ca. 1894-1903, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.