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Wednesday, July 20, 2016
The History & Appeal Of Book Groups In America
you ever read a good book and found yourself wanting to talk about it to other
readers whom you have respect for?
Ever search for a lively debate or an intense discussion of what you just
of people participate in a reading group, known as a book group, but what
should one take into consideration when forming or participating in one? The Reading
Group Book: The Complete Guide to
Starting and Sustaining a Reading Group, with Annotated Lists of 250 Titles for
Provocative Discussion by David Laskin and Holly Hughes may offer some
helpful hints on the process.
1995 book describes how to start a group, give it focus, set up ground rules
for choosing a book, and scheduling gatherings of the group. Many groups start out with great intentions
but then the weaknesses present themselves. Some people won’t like the choice
of book selected. Others won’t make time
to read the book. Even those who read it
and liked it may not be available for meetings.
Some show up as a spectator but don’t contribute in a meaningful
way. Many groups turn into social clubs
and the book becomes a secondary focus at times. It’s great if books can bring people together
and increase reading frequency, but not all book groups work out.
groups if done well, can contribute greatly to society and publishing.
word of mouth grapevine has made America’s book groups into a kind of
underground movement or subculture: There
are definitely ‘hot book group books, and they aren’t by any means your typical
best-sellers or canonized classics,” say the authors.
earliest book club pioneers tended to be women.
They were expected to cook, clean, child-rear and take care of the home
while the men worked and boys went to school or worked. The women would gather at churches and
discuss books while gossiping or tending to church affairs.
book clubs that formed a few decades ago came from organizations like
sororities, the American Association of University Women, the League of Women
Voters, college alumni, churches, and communal organizations. Today it’s a lot of that – and groups of
women that share something in common, perhaps something as simple as having
kids in the same elementary school.
how did book clubs first form?
America the tradition dates back nearly four centuries.
authors note: “No less a figure than the
noted Puritan religious leader Anne Hutchinson is credited with forming
America’s first literary discussion group.
It may even have started before she hit these shores; while sailing from
England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634, she supposedly gathered her
fellow female passengers each week to talk about Sunday’s sermon.
once she had established herself in Boston, Hutchinson invited interested women
to her parlor twice each week for sermon discussions and the group swiftly
progressed from literary analysis to the theological disputation. The authorities accused Hutchinson of
‘troubling the peace of the commonwealth’ and maintaining a meeting and an
assembly in your house that hath been condemned by the general assembly as a
thing not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God nor fitting for your sex! For these transgressions, Anne Hutchinson was
what should one look for in a book club?
often -- and where -- it meets
the discussions are moderated
of a group
serious are the participants?
percentage of the group shows up, has read the book, and actively participates?
factors to consider would be asking yourself if you:
often and enjoy it
you could meet like-minded readers
to talk about what you read
tolerate hearing differing viewpoints
the capacity to be analytical about reading books you simply liked
the time to meet regularly
an intellectual debate that can’t be found elsewhere
vast majority of book groups focus on fiction – novels – but the authors
suggest that these groups throw in poetry, short-stories, plays, non-fiction,
and books from unknown authors.
do book clubs get their choices from?
Some will read classics or historically significant books. Others look for best-sellers or books
reviewed by credible media outlets.
Other clubs look for books that received awards or they get
recommendations from librarians, local bookstores, or things they uncover while
browsing the offerings of Amazon. Laskin
and Hughes recommended a few do's and don’ts to be employed when a group chooses
a book, including these:
choose self-help books.
stay too long with a single theme or genre.
be prissy. Let yourself be shocked.
choose books that at least one person in the group has already read and can
take chances. Don’t rule anything out.
make an effort to finish the book, no matter how much you loathe it.”
are good ways to move a lively discussion along? Give everyone a chance to talk but don’t
obligate anyone to talk all the time.
Ask questions that get people going and not just a vague, open-ended one
like: “Did you like the book and why?
“Figure out a way to evaluate a book and how to bring out the
interesting concepts presented by the author.
The key is to see how to make a discussion of the book as relevant as
the book is to a reader’s life.
and Hughes offered up hundreds of recommended titles for book groups. Want something provocative? Go with Lolita,
The Executioner’s Song, or The Secret History. Need something on parents and children? Try ADeath
in the Family, Sons and Lovers,
or The Good Mother. Want books told from a child’s
perspective? Look at Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher In the Rye, or To
Kill a Mockingbird. It had lists of
gay topics, gender themes, race as subject, and other areas. Its list, called Top 10 Book Club Hits, included these:
1. Palace Walk by Naguib
2. The Remains of the Day by Kazud Ishiguro
3. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
4. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
5. Beloved by Toni Morrison
6. Love in Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia
7. Madame Bovary by Gustave
8. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret
8. Angles of Repose by Wallace
10. The Road to Coorain by Jill Kee
never been a member of a book group, though I can see its appeal. It would be great to discover a terrific
book, read it and then share in an illuminating conversation the way we used to
do in high school and college. I’d
probably choose a non-fiction book about ethics and values. I’m most curious as to what is the right
thing to do in a situation and why many of us fail to act in the way we know to
be true, just, and proper.
maybe I’d form a book group for those who read books about books – anything
from books that cover aspects of publishing, such as editing, marketing, and
getting published, to books that cover language, history of printing, or the
subject of book clubs.
of The Reading Group Book, at the
time of publication, were members of the same reading group for 14 years.
Laskin is an author, freelance writer, and contributor to The New York Times, Esquire, and Family
Life. Hughes is a contributing editor to
Literary Cavalcade magazine. I conclude with this stirring excerpt from
don’t join groups to become conversant with the great minds of the past. We join because we love books and love to
talk about books, or because we want a push to read more or read more widely,
or because we want to meet fellow book lovers.
For many of us, just as for many female forerunners back in the
nineteenth century, our book groups represent our sole escape from the
pressures of home, family, children (and work, which wasn’t as true for women a
cherish our book groups because here and only here can we kick off our shoes,
let our hair down, and say exactly what we feel about subjects we really care