By Susan M. Carini
To begin, a shamefaced confession: I’ve been rejected for membership in a book club.
Never mind the undergraduate degree in English, the graduate fellowship to Johns Hopkins, the lifelong passion for literature (including flashlight reading through my wonder years), my sagging bookshelves, and well-thumbed copies of the New York Review of Books.
Before laying bare the cruel, I mean, complex criteria for membership in book clubs, let’s consider the rise of these clubs and why women have disproportionate membership (80 percent) in them. In simplest terms, once there were books, there were book clubs. As Elizabeth Long writes in Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life, “At their inception, reading groups represented a cultural community enabled by the most revolutionary form of communication of the age.”
In this country, in the post–Civil War period, books clubs for women flourished. Members were white, middle-class women, the clubs were highly organized, and the book list often was tied to the club’s particular form of social activism. For instance, the Houston Ladies Reading Club studied American literature, hosted suffragists on a national tour, and prevailed upon the Houston City Council to finance a library. In this same period, clubs for African American women took root—a story well told by Elizabeth McHenry in Forgotten Readers. And it hasn't all been about women: during World War I, the literacy of our soldiers became a prevailing concern, so the Army hired John Erskine—a Columbia University professor—to design a program of classic literature for troops heading off to the front.
As the years went by, the overall shift for book clubs was toward a college-educated membership and more informal organization and discussion; additionally, the sense of mission faded away, with discussion among members becoming an end in itself. Clubs also began to take shape—as Emory Professor of English Ben Reiss describes it—"within institutional structures, rather than as loose networks of friends. Many cities have adopted 'One Book, One City' programs to encourage discussion of a particular book, often one by a local author or with a local setting. Libraries also sponsor reading groups; through the 'Big Read'—an NEA program—more than 200 library systems have received federal grants to promote discussion of texts selected by the grant's advisory board."
Fast-forward to the revolution that Oprah inspired. In 1996, the talk-show host declared that she was going to “get America reading again.” Whatever we may think of how she has shifted the literary canon, few would deny her phenomenal follow-through on that difficult promise. As Elizabeth Long observes, no one could have been a less likely “fairy godmother to the authors she selected.” In Long’s words, “[Winfrey] is an African American woman raised in poverty, who left [Tennessee State University] before finishing a degree, and she has made her career in a medium most literary pundits view with condescension and mistrust.”
With most of Oprah’s selections being by or about women—and usually playing on themes of abuse and empowerment—book reviewer Gavin McNett has argued that her books are designed “to play on base sentiment, to reaffirm popular wisdom, to tell readers what they expected to hear . . . to help them learn what they already know.” But when each book selected—from Nobel Prize winner to first-time author—sells hundreds of thousands of copies, how can one argue with that success? Joseph Skibell of Emory’s Creative Writing Program and English department, who is just beginning promotion for his latest novel, A Curable Romantic, has heard all the arguments about Oprah. As I started down my list, pro and con, he politely cut me off, saying, “I’m pro-‘O.’ ” Fourteen years after waking up the literary world, Oprah has attracted legions of supporters and detractors who seem quite clear on where they stand.
With Oprah’s help, there are now close to five million book clubs in the United States. There was an uptick in the formation of these groups after 9/11 and again after the downturn in the economy. Four hundred years after books changed the world, we still feel pretty hip, brandishing our Nooks and Kindles. Books are still books, even when they aren’t, and we still desperately want to talk about them. So, why have book clubs flown so long under the scholarly radar?
By Long’s analysis, reading groups have occupied what she calls “a zone of cultural
invisibility.” She goes on:
They were not of interest to literature departments, whose major focus is books and authors, not readers. They were not of interest to sociologists or political scientists because women’s reading groups do not pursue activities with any obvious relationship to formal political processes. . . . Communications departments had not researched them because reading groups were not engaged with the mass media. Leftists were uninterested because . . .
We get it, Elizabeth. But the real question is whether, in part, book clubs have eluded scholarly attention because they draw their numbers so heavily from women. Certainly, for Long, there was an element of personal and scholarly risk in writing about the clubs at all. As she notes, “I often felt that male academic colleagues could not understand why an intelligent person might consider women’s reading groups a serious topic for investigation. . . . [T]o take reading groups seriously had the potential, like much feminist scholarship, to destabilize received notions in social thought.” Long admits that “this issue of Not a Good Topic continued to plague me throughout the writing of the book.”
Set against academe’s indifference is the outsize importance these clubs have in many women’s lives. Long did her research in Houston and reports,
As I mobilized informal networks of acquaintances to discover other groups and then began to lecture about the project at Rice [University] and in the community, it became obvious that the phenomenon of reading groups was both dramatically more widespread than expected and of very positive importance to many participants. I found myself driving hundreds of miles around the city to wealthy mansions, transient-feeling apartments, library meeting rooms, and anonymous condominium developments, sharing refreshments from gourmet brunches to store-bought cookies, and sitting in on groups discussing an equally wide range of books.
For book-club members, there is the usual bewildering array of reasons for joining. Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian wrote about some of them in her essay “Why the Book Club Is More Than Fad.” For one thing, the clubs create personal links in a fractured world. Some readers need extra incentive to crack open their books. Books can be cheaper than a concert or a night out at the movies. Debating them in groups is an excuse to get a babysitter and talk like a grownup. And let’s not forget the people who are using them as singles’ clubs.
Without doubt, many of these reasons motivate women. But Long mentions the repeated presence of the words salvation, life raft, and saving grace when women discussed the role that book clubs have played in their lives.
More than anything else, book groups are about identity. In this way, they declare their difference from other ways that women historically have aggregated—for instance, in gardening and craft groups. Long calls book clubs “deliberative spaces.” Toward the end of her book is the aha, where she puts to rest forever the question of whether she chose a good topic. Says Long, “More than men, women may need the deliberative spaces to voice their concerns, to narrate the particularities of their lives, to expand their cultural repertoires in dialogue with narratives in books or from other women’s lives, to name what delights or troubles them, to explore the dissociations between what matters to them and the social strictures or ideological frameworks that fail in important ways to address them.”
So why does something so great sometimes become greatly annoying? (By the way, you now can buy T-shirts with the sentiment above printed on them.) If identity formation is the positive side of book clubs, then their rules and politics are occasionally the dark side.
The world now has spawned professional book-club facilitators. And surely the woman wearing the crown of that society is Kate Larson of Book Passage, a store with two branches in the San Francisco area. Writing about Larson, Joanne Kaufman of the New York Times has said that Larson is something of a Miss Lonely Hearts for wannabe book club members and disgruntled ones. Says Larson, “I collect names, and when I get twelve or fourteen I ask them to come to a meeting at the store. If it looks like they all agree about what kinds of things they want to read, they’ve got a book club.”
So what causes a member to join in joy and, later, leave just as happily? According to Esther Bushell—a professional book-group facilitator in the New York area who charges $250 to $300 a member annually for her services—the most common cause of dissatisfaction and departures is “because there’s an ayatollah. . . . This person expects to choose all the books and to take over all the discussions.”
And, sometimes, when the battles are not about the books, they are about the clotted cream. Susan Farewell of Westport, Connecticut, joined a book group called the IlluminaTea whose guidelines included no therapy talk, no chitchat, and no skipping meetings. “It was very high-minded,” said Farewell, and the high standards extended to the refreshment table. “When it was your month to host a meeting, you would do your interpretation of a tea, and the teas got very competitive. . . . If the standards had been more relaxed, I would have stayed in the group,” she said. “But I just felt I couldn’t keep getting clotted cream.”
One of my Emory colleagues is a member of the group that rejected me. (We are still friends. We laugh about “The Incident.”) I asked her to talk about what has kept her in that darn club of hers. She summed it up this way:
Every third Thursday, I meet with fourteen other women to talk books, catch up on their lives, and discover insights into my own world. My bookie friends make me stretch and read about places and people and situations that I probably wouldn’t have considered on my own. Over the years, a few have left our little group. We’ve filled their spots easily, but sadly had to limit our growth because our houses just aren’t big enough to handle more than fifteen. More than two hundred books—along with good food, wine, friends, and lots of laughter—have kept me coming back for more for twenty-two years.
Book clubs in need of new members, I am still available. And I don’t mind getting the clotted cream. Knowing how many clubs are out there, I live in hope—kind of like a literate dumpster puppy getting a new lease on life.
Susan M. Carini is a member of the CWE Editorial Board and Advisory Council, and is a member of the IPVWG Working Group at Emory, which is dedicated to supporting faculty and staff who experience intimate partner violence.