By Paul Smart
My late mother had a book club that called itself “Slime” because that’s what one of their husbands named the type of works “their women” discussed once a month over drinks.
My wife had a book club that morphed into a garden club and later a political action caucus. They accommodated both those among them who had trouble reading, as well as their changing tastes.
A meetup.com listing for the Hudson Valley shows seven public book groups ranging from ones where participants also knit to others where only Man Booker prize winners or political and policy works get read and discussed.
Just this winter, the Kingston-based Good Works Institute instituted their own book club, selecting their roster of reading from books on “social, economic, and/or ecological resilience and regeneration.”
Shall we mention the old Book of the Month Club, or all that Oprah’s wrought with her book club and its mighty influence?
Historically, the idea of people gathering to discuss literary items had its roots in Greek philosophical discussion, filtered through coffee house talk during the years now known as the Enlightenment, and given form in this country by Benjamin Franklin’s lively 12-member Junto Society. Women’s book clubs started forming, at first surreptitiously, in the late 18th century. Men countered in the early 19th with lyceum discussions that featured honored speakers.
Some writers formed their own societies where they could explore their own works by discussing others’; think of the Bloomsbury Group in and around London, or “Stratford-on-Odeon,” as Sylvia Beach’s famous gathering of modernist writers at her Shakespeare & Co. bookstore called themselves. In the 1920s, the Literary Guild formed to challenge Book of the Month Club hegemony, and later several universities started Great Books courses as a way of pioneering suburban discussion groups.
So where does it all stand these days?
Single-title clubs are the ones where everybody reads and discusses the same title. Multi-title clubs involve different club members reading different works, all sharing works over time, with discussion building as more works get digested and books shifting hands through loans and joint-purchasing. Many libraries run their own book discussion groups and, as with so many things these days, much of the entire phenomenon is now moving online, where one loses the give-and-take and group education process one gets from live discussion, but handle things more at one’s own leisure without all the egos involved in opinion-polishing and bloviating.
More importantly, what does this all say for literature, and the culture in general?
Book reviews form clubs, after a fashion, by pointing out works that seem necessary to current thought. More formal clubs allow for discussion, and consensus-building, around personal observations and shared experiences.
Maybe the time has come where we all need our own book clubs, including those who represent us. Maybe it’s time we again strive to share all we know, for all our betterment, as in that earlier Enlightenment. The time feels ready, as do all those books piling up all around us.