Notebook: Reading Together, Reading Apart (Part II)

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

(Read Part I of this post here)
Oprah’s mass book club also dovetails with another history, that of the mail-order book club: readers over vast distances connecting with the same books. Mail-order book clubs were born in the 1920s, when the Book of the Month Club and the Literary Guild appeared, in a time when bookstores were scarce, to tap audiences not reached by in-person bookselling and, sales then being very unpredictable, to protect publishers from overprinting by committing readers to buying books in advance. (In 1951, critics Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun created a more intellectual variant called Readers Subscription, recruiting poet W. H. Auden to help them make the picks. One of James Baldwin’s brothers worked in the office. Some of the hundreds of blurbs this august threesome wrote for the club were collected in a book called A Company of Readers, which features a little, somewhat narrow, history of book clubs by Barzun as its introduction. Readers Subscription was revived for a while by publishing magus Jason Epstein, helmed by author Arthur Goldwag, in offices that adjoined The New York Review of Books.

Now mass book clubs that distribute their own books like Book of the Month Club and Literary Guild share the field with book clubs like Oprah’s that work by recommendation, whether on TV (Jenna Bush), YouTube (Jouelzy), GoodReads (Emma Watson), or Instagram (“Well-Read Black Girl” Glory Edim, Reese Witherspoon), which has counterintuitively emerged as a powerful engine of bookselling. The Panorama study confirmed that “customers who engage avidly with books do so with other media, too,” and “cross-media discovery is highest with millennials,” who do, before you get judgy, “consume more books across formats than other age groups.” Whole cities got into the mass book club action beginning with Seattle’s "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book" event in 1998. Recently, a new outfit called Literati received $40 million in funding for a service that delivers readers a package of books selected by celebrities.

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I haven’t ever belonged to a book club. I have so much to read for work that it’s hard to squeeze in more. But I realize that a big part of my early life was reading books recommended by people I admired and roping those people into conversations about those books. I still talk to these folks in my head; it’s part of how I read. Language exists in the world of people who share it; reading is a fundamentally other-involving activity. Some books become so much a part of the moment that one finds people reading them all around—this is happening for me now with Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste—and conversations about it spring up spontaneously and loop through each other. I’m part of an otherwise not-book-related group that decided to read Caste together. Sometimes when you need a way to come together with people—when you can’t eat together, for instance!—or to wrestle with a shared concern, reading can create a table to gather round.

A big anonymous reading group like Oprah’s or a town’s, or a service like Literati, may help you to sort through the vast ocean of books, to feel connected with others, to be a part of the conversation of the moment, to find a good book for you that you might not otherwise have known about. But I’d suggest that going to your librarian or your bookseller, who will recommend books based on what you like or can point you toward a group of real-live people reading together, might serve a deeper need. It supports your local institutions, or institutions connected with something you care about; it puts you in touch with real people with whom you have something in common. In January a book club in New Mexico managed to vaccinate its whole town. English professor Jay Jacoby, who leads one of the oldest book clubs at our current partner bookstore Malaprop’s, told me that he doubts his loyal club members would trade the club for book selections by “luminaries.” They choose their books together and value one another’s opinions. (A gossippy 2019 New York Times piece went inside the book clubs of the city’s powerful, where New York’s heavy-hitters sometimes seem to wrestle with just being part of the gang.) Jay’s book club had hesitated to meet virtually, valuing so much being together in the store, but they eventually started up a few months ago and found, like the participants in the BookBrowse survey, that there were certainly things they missed, but that bridging their shared separations made it worth it.

Especially now with all this virtual technology, authors are more and more able to join individual book groups (check their web sites), or you can have a local author join to help begin their career. The group Book the Writer creates pop-up book clubs with authors. Malaprop’s, like many independent bookstores, will help interested readers put together a book club and supports freestanding book groups by sharing their meetings on its calendars and offering members a discount and making book club suggestions. BookBar bookstore in Denver just announced a newly revamped web site, Read Club Hub, managed by Josh Kaplan (from the clan of bookselling legend Mitch Kaplan, founder of Miami’s Books & Books) to connect readers with book clubs suited to their interests. Book-club shopping might become more a thing if many clubs retain a virtual component.

Once a school gym teacher said to me that people don’t learn in school to do the kinds of sports that they will be doing for the rest of their lives. I sometimes feel that way about reading. We leave behind the way we read in school, but it did give us the first seeds of sharing in a conversation with others about ideas we are working through, or stretching ourselves by encountering new thoughts through others’ eyes. Perhaps it’s up to us to form ways to read for the rest of our lives, especially when we have to reinvent being together. If there are people you would like to come closer to, why not suggest you read a book.

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