Books and Book Clubs

Book clubs are everywhere. They’ve been around since the days when monks were copying manuscripts. They got a big boost when Gutenberg made print more accessible, and they got another kick-start when Oprah Winfrey started one in the media age.

At the grass roots level friends and friends of friends organize them. Bookstores and libraries create them to promote reading and sales. Community centers use them to bring people together. There are online book clubs, church book clubs, and company book clubs. There are women’s groups (by far the majority), men’s groups, singles book clubs, gay and lesbian clubs and couple’s groups.

The big event in the recent growth of book clubs came in 1996 with the creation of Oprah’s Book Club. Big O made it easy. She picked a book every month, published online newsletters and interviews with the author, provided information on how to form a discussion group, and the advent of Book Club 2.0 in 2012 provided a space for online comment and sharing.


With Oprah leading, publishers discovered a gold mine and began including discussion outlines in the back of Oprah’s picks and later in other popular titles that were finding favor with book clubs. It’s common to find these outlines in the paperback editions of many literary bestsellers. Whatever you’re looking for it’s out there.

I’m not much of a joiner. I don’t hike, bike, or ski with groups, and I’m not comfortable at cocktail parties. I don’t belong to any alumni or sports clubs that have a social component. But… two years ago M and I decided to get together with three other couples to talk about books. I’m not sure what pushed me over the lip; I suspect it was the composition of the group. They are all brilliant conversationalists and I knew the level of discourse would be high. One of the men is a psychiatrist who also happens to be a violinist and whose wife is an emeritus professor of sociology at Columbia University. There’s a genome scientist and Shakespearean scholar from the UW whose wife is a sociologist, and there are two MD’s, one in family practice and one whose career was mostly in public health. M and I are the lightweights.

I have no discipline in a bookstore and the result is a chock full wall-length bookcase and an unread pile of books as tall as I am. I will never get to all of them, so why would I take on additional reading? The reason is that I know the group will challenge me by choosing books that I wouldn’t otherwise read. We meet at irregular intervals, because all of us travel and it’s not easy to coordinate schedules. Last night we met for the first of two meetings to talk about Shakespeare. Session 1 was centered on Hamlet and next month we are following up with Henry IV (Part 1) – a tragedy and a history/comedy. Heavy stuff, but the variety gives it freshness.


Shakespeare is just one example of reading that I wouldn’t be looking at without the prod of the book club. In the last two years we’ve read a biography of Catherine the Great, Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Chinese Nobel Prize winner, Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum (almost unreadable), Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die, Aristotle’s Poetics, and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I haven’t loved them all but I have loved the discussions. That’s what book clubs are supposed to be about.


M is more social than I am but also a voracious reader who belonged to two book clubs in Saigon with women from all over the world. And, my former wife has been an active member of a serious book club for 30 years. There has been some turnover there, but most of the original members are still active. My daughter is also a member now. I think there is another 2nd generation person in the group too, so the groundwork has been laid to keep it going for a long time. I hope it does. People who read restore my faith in a world that seems careening out of control.

More tomorrow…

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