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?

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

A casual observer of the book-club scene could be fooled into thinking that this summer was a hard one for the nation's leisure readers. Late in spring, Oprah's club shuttered, stranding publishers in what promises to be a long shoal of short print runs and offering the rest of us one literary arbiter fewer to love or hate. Borders, which ran a sort of book group of its own, shut down stores, too, after creditors refused a buyout offer from a book-club mega-company. Could reading groups be losing their sway in our culture? On one hand, this is a reasonable question; on the other, it's like asking whether the United States should worry about being out-powered by Belgium. More than 5 million adults are thought to be in reading groups, not counting online clubs, and a number of those adults have a noticeable missionary bent: If Oprah didn't get you onboard, there's a good chance that your neighbor with a Thursday group will have you marking up Love in the Time of Cholera before summer is through.

To point out that a good part of this country attends book clubs is not necessarily to establish that America is crazy about books. Like scheduling a business lunch or following a date upstairs for coffee, book-clubbing is fraught with ulterior motives. For one thing, there is usually dessert. The Book Club Cookbookrecommends discussing Michael Chabon's Pulitzer-winning novel in the company of three good-sized cocoa-cinnamon babkas. Some clubs look like offerings to the gods of hyperglycemia, their altars laden with warm brownies, sweet zucchini bread, homemade cupcakes, and—just as inevitably—a gross of Oreos dumped on a paper plate by someone who has long since fled the scene. (This packaged-food stealth bomber is the Boo Radley of book clubs, cropping up when all eyes are averted to deposit curious wares: Once, at a club I visited, someone had planted a large, gaping carton of KFC in the middle of a food spread, where it stood untouched through the discussion like some occult talisman.) Alcohol tends to be on offer, which is another way of saying that book-clubbing is not something to undergo with people you find deeply boorish. Or, also, people you like too much: Parents of small children have been known to linger long after the coffee goes cold, running up their sitters' clocks to chase an extra, guilty hour of unencumbered social time. For a pursuit decked out in the stiff raiment of virtue, clubbing is extraordinarily enabling of vice.

It's also—and if I were a certain kind of book-clubber, I might here take out my highlighter to flag this "major theme" of the pastime—marked by a strange ambivalence on what to read. Where one might expect club-goers to be fire-in-the-belly champions of a literary agenda, people who harbor strong feelings about Djuna Barnes and Henri Barbusse and who keep at least one crumbling, grease-stained copy of The Rise of the Novelin range of their nightstands, many book-clubbers (most book-clubbers?) seem not to care too much what passes through their literary gullets. One New York club's reading list includes Infinite Jest, the Hunger Games series, the first Dexter novel, and Don Quixote. The lineup of another in Washington state includes a novel by Tracy Chevalier, a memoir by Ruth Reichl, and a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Tossing darts across a Barnes & Noble could hardly produce a more scattershot list.

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All of this raises questions. If the literary machinations of book clubs are somewhat incidental, it is unclear why they—more than poker evenings, knitting circles, movie nights, or any other premise for adult group leisure—claim such swaths of after-hours time. Book clubs are not the province of a single demographic. They don't favor leftist intellectuals or far-right thinkers. There are clubs about young-adult novels, governmental works by Plato, lesbian literature, science fiction. There are clubs devoted to food books and to the Bible. Men and women both take part in book clubs—and have since a time when men's and women's social roles were thought to be entirely dissimilar. What is it about the idea of joining a reading group that draws in such a broad American cross-section?

The answer to that question may have to do less with the nature of book clubs than with the nurture of readers who join them. Book-clubbing gives off a fructuous scent of aspiration. It has from the start. Early clubs served largely as a domestic and populist alternative to higher education, then comparatively hard to come by. Eventually, though, this balance shifted, and clubs started to pull toward the middle of the cultural spectrum—fleeing both the tight walls of scholarship and the low ceiling of mainstream entertainment. What started as a portal of cultural incursion is, today, a place for cultural retreat.

Although the exact origins of American book-clubbing are arguable—talking about texts in private is as old as history itself—the modern domestic book group comes most directly from a push for women's intellectual autonomy. Beginning in the mid-18th century in England, motivated women of means and leisure began hosting salons for each other at home, inviting (male) luminaries of the day over to serve as keynote guests. These salon-goers came to be called "bluestockings," supposedly after one popular guest's signature garment; by 1863, across the pond, The New American Cyclopaedia was using the term as a catchall descriptor for "pedantic or ridiculously literary ladies." The first modern-style reading groups emerged out of this "ridiculously" ambitious culture of self-education, taking form as refuges for women who wanted to get ahead and cultivate their minds outside an educational system to which they had no proper access.

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.

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.

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

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