Book clubs in America: Why do we love them so much?

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
July 29 2011 10:54 AM

Book Clubs

Why do we love them so much? Is it the zucchini bread?

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That outsider orientation stuck even as the practice of book-clubbing went mainstream. In time, mail-order outfits like the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild, both founded in the middle 1920s, harnessed public interest in communal reading to move what became several hundred thousand volumes regularly, stabilizing—or helping to stabilize—the chronically precarious business of literary publishing. But the clubs served other, more cultural functions, too. The '20s were not just a period of booming economic fortunes. From the allusive wit of Cole Porter to the alluring refinement of F. Scott Fitzgerald's characters, from the growing popularity of Modernist expression to the aloof irony of young magazines like The New Yorker, this era brought to the forefront a predilection for educated taste, a delight in casual erudition and the cultural pedigree it implied. Book clubs were no longer merely a pastime of well-heeled amateur intellectuals. They now offered a doorway to mainstream social progress.

A new class of person emerged to hold those doors open as widely as possible and direct the traffic that streamed through. This person could be called the people's professor—a gatekeeper responsible for drawing up a public syllabus to lead aspiring readers across the straits of literary good taste. Sometimes, these tastemakers had special claims to literary authority. Often, they did not. (Book-of-the-Month Club readings were selected by a group that included editors at the Saturday Review; Literary Guild selections were for years made by one man, John W. Beecroft, who had most recently worked for a newsreel-production company.) As national book-clubbing gained currency, though, the intellectual antes rose. In 1947, when the United States had more than 3 millionbook-club members, two University of Chicago scholars who'd been leading after-hours book groups formed the Great Books Foundation, based on guided discussion of canonical texts. (Its chief goal was not leisure but what the foundation called "the noble work of self-improvement.") Four years later, Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, and W.H. Auden—two vaunted Columbia professors and a poet—launched the Readers' Subscription club, designed, in Barzun's words, "to create an audience for books that the other clubs considered to be too far above the public taste." The flip-side implication was, of course, that other clubs favored texts tasteful readers would scoff at.

It is unclear whether that was actually the case. (A 1948 study comparing Book-of-the-Month and Literary Guild selections with market best-sellers and a random sample of reviewed books found the clubs generally chose well by the standards of critical taste.) But Barzun's gentle condescension is telling nonetheless. Since book clubs first launched with their aspirational mission, the educational baseline in the United States had shifted. In 1920, 600,000 Americans were enrolled in college. In 1950, there were more than 2 million. Those numbers have exploded since. What was once the distant goal of book-clubbing—a national, democratized book knowledge and appreciation culture—was now something like the norm. By Auden, Barzun, and Trilling's time, clubs had become the wandering third hand of the university curriculum.

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At first glance, the path from that high-literary summit to Oprah and zucchini bread looks like a backslide (ignoring, for the moment, that Oprah has dragged more reluctant readers up the hill to good fiction than Auden, Barzun, and Trilling ever did). But in fact the current state of clubbing is a natural next step. The ranging, men-and-women-of-letters approach to scholarship that Barzun and Trilling wrought has little place in today's universities, where high-profile professors are, ideally, masters of a focused field and its professional demands, their task as teachers being largely to guide students in reading methods that will make scholarly intercourse lucid to them. Unless students grow up to be critics or literary scholars, though—two career choices not strongly encouraged by today's job market—they are apt to find some disconnect between the reading habits they learned at school and their reading lives as adults in the world.

Book clubs, today, help close that gap from two ends. Some, like the Platoor Joyce groups, function as stay-in-school clubs: What they offer members is an opportunity to wind back the clock to those heady days at professor Raesentoest's seminar table—a thrill and skill set that, since moving to a condo, taking that hectic PR job, and doing all their housewares shopping at the Costco, has been noticeably absent from life. Other groups, like Oprah's Book Club or your local words-and-wine chapter, are escape-from-school groups: Their members may have loathed professor Raesentoest's seminar for sucking all the fun out of reading; they are thrilled, now, to confer with other passionate adults about the believability of character and the emotional effect of books both lofty and deliriously low. The hard-line proponents of these two camps are unlikely to end up Beloved-to-Beloved on a single couch. Yet they're seeking the same thing: escape from the dullness of cultural extremes.

The real story of book-clubbing these days is a story of flight. Clubbers are no longer reaching for a level of education and society they cannot touch, but they are also, like all of us, fleeing the future of daytime TV and Internet-cat porn that looms before all mortal flesh. We can appreciate the effort. Most people these days occupy a kind of hinterland between high and low culture, between self-consciousness and self-liberation—some people navigate these grounds with what they call irony; others, earnestness—and it's clear we're due to be huddled here for some time. Book clubs are one effort to set up community in the landscape. They are our bid to stay on the same page across the blur of modern life.