I’ve Got to Talk to Someone About This! A History of Book Clubs

The history of book clubs is the story of you and me—nerds who read something and then HAD to talk to someone else about it. We humans are social creatures. We love to share experiences with others. Thus, it’s no wonder that when a book inspires us, haunts us, comforts us, consumes us, or transforms us, we want to share those feelings with others.

Book clubs are often formed between people with shared identities. There are groups for women, for mothers, for lesbians, for Black professionals—the possibilities are endless. Some groups read books by a single author, others only cover particular topics (like books about the Civil War). However you identify and whatever your niche, there is a book club for you.

Looking to get involved? Check out these online book clubs to join in 2020.

A General History of Book Clubs

In the general population, book clubs have gained popularity in the past few decades. Roughly 5 million Americans gather (in person or virtually) to eat, socialize, and discuss common texts every few weeks. Most book clubs are small, consisting of ten or fewer members.

The idea of gathering to discuss literature, philosophy, morality, culture, and the politics of the day is not new. Some trace the concept back as far as the Socratic circles of 400 B.C. (It’s interesting to note that some of the earliest texts such as The Iliad include same-sex relationships, but LGBTQ+ focused book clubs and books disappear from mainstream history for centuries.)

One of the earliest reported book clubs was started in 1634 by a badass name Anne Hutchinson, who organized a women’s group to examine weekly sermons. Her group met while aboard a ship headed to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, whose general assembly condemned the group. Obviously, such censure did not stop women from reading and discussing important texts. Hutchinson herself continued to host Bible study groups in her new home.

Many women’s groups followed, as well as many such clubs for men. The history of book clubs includes groups founded by notable people like Benjamin Franklin, Margaret Fuller, and, of course, Oprah Winfrey. Many writers formed book clubs where they read and critiqued one another’s work, including J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Virginia Woolf.

Additionally, services like the Book of the Month Club made community reading more common and accessible. By 1927, Harry Sherman’s Book of the Month Club had some 60,000 subscribers who paid for a monthly book delivery. It was controversial because, unlike many clubs of the day, it shipped current rather than classic literature. This included titles like Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. I know, I know. I am also clutching my pearls at the audacity of Sherman’s choices.

A Women’s History of Book Clubs

Women make up the majority of book club members. Is it because we’re smarter and friendlier? Probably, but I have no evidence to support that claim.

What I do know is that ten years ago, women made up 70–80% of all book club members. More recently, among women who enjoy reading, some 56% report being in book clubs. The likelihood of being in a book club increases as women age, with 65% of women over 65 participating in at least one club.

After Anne Hutchinson’s group, many others formed to discuss religious texts. In the early 1800s, women’s groups began meeting to discuss Shakespeare, the publications of the day, and other poetry and nonfiction. As women slowly gained more rights, they created more spaces to share knowledge.

In 1866, Sarah Atwood Denman founded Friends in Council, which is the longest running women’s club in America. Then, in 1868 someone made the grave mistake of barring female journalists from an event honoring Charles Dickens. Consequently, Jane Cunnigham Croly and other women columnists formed Sorosis. This group inspired several others across the country, many of which still function today.

Book clubs have often sparked resistance and revolution. Naturally, such groups contributed to the women’s rights movement. They gathered hundreds of women together for lectures and readings. They opened libraries, generated scholarships for women’s colleges, and even formed girls’ schools. Ultimately, these groups showed women—and others—that women are intellectuals who belong in serious spaces.

In the 1960s, “radical” feminist groups shifted their focus to the personal. These groups considered the individual impacts of sexism. They also cared less about societal acceptance, unlike their suffragist predecessors. Instead, they wanted women to feel more self-confident and independent.

Oprah’s Book Club (OBC), established in 1996, started one of the largest historical shifts in book club culture. Using her national platform, Oprah led her (largely white and female) audience in discussions of texts she personally selected. Her first book selection was The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard. In 2003, Oprah started recommending classics like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but soon switched back to contemporary titles so that she could converse with the authors on her show. While she’s often covered important topics like race and gender, OBC echoes the 1960s focus on the personal, encouraging self-awareness and reflection.

Of course, a group of women talking about (gasp!) their emotional responses to books has garnered plenty of criticism. Some call it “middle-brow” and lament its departure from the book club’s intellectual beginnings. Nonetheless, OBC has encouraged millions of people to read and is still going strong.

A Black History of Book Clubs

Black people in the U.S. (and elsewhere) have been denied access to many spaces. Sometimes we seek out separate spaces because in most aspects of our lives we have no choice but to be surrounded by the white majority. Consequently, we often create our own spaces where we can be our full selves and share experiences away from the white gaze.

For Black people in America, literacy has always been particularly political. For enslaved people, reading was a crime subject to the harshest punishments. Thus, it was revolutionary for freed men and women to start literary discussion groups aimed at making up for absent or faulty formal education.

Historical records indicate that free Blacks were forming such groups as early as 1821, along with libraries and reading rooms. In 1828, freed Blacks started the Colored Reading Society in Philadelphia. This group was exclusive to men. It departed from the tradition of studying religion and morality, focusing instead on “strengthening memory…and form[ing] habits of analyzing, comparing, abstracting, and correct reasoning.”

In the 19th century, women’s “culture clubs” became increasingly popular spaces for discussing literature. However, these clubs consisted primarily of middle and upper class white women. Unlike the men’s clubs and the white women’s clubs, the groups for Black women were often smaller. The Society of Young Women (1827, Massachusetts and throughout the northeast) and Philadelphia’s Female Literacy Association (1831) were two such groups. Members of these groups both read literature and wrote and critiqued their own pieces.

New York’s Phoenix Society, established in 1833, was the first co-ed literary society for Black Americans. Like the Colored Reading Society, this group focused heavily on memorization and recitation. Reading aloud made text accessible to people with varied levels of literacy, which was important considering that the education of Black people was still outlawed in the south and varied in the north. These groups unified freed Blacks as they navigated continued racism and inequity.

Black literary societies were active in the antislavery movement. In 1834, the Ladies Literary Society of New York proved itself a political force. They raised money for abolitionist efforts, successfully collected petitions, and were instrumental in directly freeing many individuals from slavery.

Up until slavery was abolished, many literary societies had an antislavery focus. They read the latest abolitionist tracts and shared information about happenings in the south. Additionally, they laid the foundation for community newspapers and free schools.

At the turn of the century, women led the work of taking literary societies south, spreading literacy to formerly enslaved Black Americans. The 20th century birthed more Black literary societies. For example, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, poet Georgia Douglas Johnson convened groups of rising poets in her living room.

Throughout the 1900s, people established more and more reading groups for Black people of all genders. The 1960s and ’70s were times of increased intellectualism among the new Black middle class on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement. Consequently, they began to read and meet more and to collectively support Black authors.

Black book clubs have continued to grow and thrive into the 21st century. Much like earlier iterations, these groups still provide necessary community, support, and safety for Black people.

A Queer History of Book Clubs

Like other marginalized groups, the LGBTQIA+ community have carved out spaces for themselves, including book clubs. Due to the dearth of LGBTQ+ inclusive literature (and the difficulty accessing it), several organizations created lending libraries. For over 70 years the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives (Chicago) and Quatrefoil Library (St. Paul, Minnesota) have provided access to queer texts and have hosted many book clubs, giving users political and historical views often absent from mainstream education.

Unfortunately, libraries have not always been (and many still aren’t) LGBTQ+ friendly. Most queer book clubs prefer to meet outside of libraries. Though this is impacted by members’ privacy concerns, the main deterrent has been libraries’ lack of LGBTQ+ literature. While we continue to make gains, there are many places where libraries have few or no LGBTQ+ books. There are even more libraries that have books, but don’t feature them—even during Pride or LGBTQ history months.

Fortunately, there are other spaces for LGBTQ+ people. These days, many organizations host virtual and in-person reading groups. The Twin City’s Queer Book Club, hosted by Moon Palace Books, has quickly outgrown its meeting space. The For Colored Girls Book Club, established in 2018, elevates work by women and non-binary authors. These clubs often read LGBTQ+ classics like Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin as well as contemporary titles like How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones.

Want to Join a Book Club?

There are so many options for joining or for starting your own book club. A quick Google search is a great start, or a site like Meetup. Want to read more about book clubs? Check out Book Riot’s book club archives!

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