Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The History & Appeal Of Book Groups In America

Have 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 read?

Millions 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.

This 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.

Book groups if done well, can contribute greatly to society and publishing.

“This 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.

The 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.

Many 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.

So how did book clubs first form?

In America the tradition dates back nearly four centuries.

The 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.

“And 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 banished.

So what should one look for in a book club?

·         How often  -- and where -- it meets
·         How the discussions are moderated
·         Size of a group
·         How serious are the participants?
·         What percentage of the group shows up, has read the book, and actively participates?

Other factors to consider would be asking yourself if you:

·         Read often and enjoy it
·         Wish you could meet like-minded readers
·         Want to talk about what you read
·         Can tolerate hearing differing viewpoints
·         Possess the capacity to be analytical about reading books you simply liked
·         Have the time to meet regularly
·         Seek an intellectual debate that can’t be found elsewhere

The 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.

Where 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:

·         “Don’t choose self-help books.
·         “Don’t stay too long with a single theme or genre.
·         “Don’t be prissy. Let yourself be shocked.
·         “Do choose books that at least one person in the group has already read and can vouch for.
·         “Do take chances. Don’t rule anything out.
·         “Do make an effort to finish the book, no matter how much you loathe it.”

What 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.

Laskin 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 A Death 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 Malifouz
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 Marquez
7. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
8. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
8. Angles of Repose by Wallace Stegnev
10. The Road to Coorain by Jill Kee Conway

I’ve 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.

Or 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.

The authors 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 their book:

“We 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 century ago).

“We 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 about.”  


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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2016

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