In 1634, troublemaking Puritan Anne Hutchinson and her husband William boarded a ship bound for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Along the way, Anne began a group gathering she continued once she landed that September in the New World. The group consisted of women (and eventually some men, too) engaging in intellectual discussions about the weekly sermons delivered to them. As you can probably imagine, such activity made a little trouble for our heroine.
Though not exactly a book club, scholars often point to Hutchinson’s gathering as an early example of such. It was at least a precursor to similar groups that grew up at times under the likes of 18th century essayist and women’s rights advocate Hannah Crocker, 19th century African American freedom fighter Sarah Mapps Douglass, and 20th century media queen Oprah Winfrey.
Some of these clubs focused primarily on the discussion of writings presented by the group members themselves, while others turned their attention to upscale fiction with questions in the back and memoir of a somewhat dubious nature. But they all had the same goal: to stimulate intellectual growth. And they haven’t always been just for women, either.
Plenty of prominent men, including Benjamin Franklin, Ernest Hemingway, and at least one of my uncles have been known to participate in formal book discussion gatherings. It’s true (or at least it says so on the Internet) that somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of American book clubs have an entirely female membership, and about 93% of all book club participants are women.
Still, according to the New York Times, more than 5 million Americans belong to a book club. Even if the menfolk only make up 7%, that’s still a fair number of men gathering to discuss books. At least in the US. And that estimate doesn’t include the clubs that exist online, which is an ever-growing number of both guys and gals.
So why do all of these readers get together to talk about what they’ve read? Some of the earliest women’s groups did it because it was a way to become better informed, better educated people when for them to do so wasn’t exactly encouraged by society. And I suspect that’s not so different than the reason any book club has decided to meet.
Sure, for the clubs of today, part of the motivation might be more social—to share a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with friends. Or we might dive into Oprah’s latest pick because we know everyone else will have read it and we don’t want to be left out of cocktail party conversations. We might even join in simply because there are more than a million books published every year in the United States alone and it’s nice if someone will please tell us which ones we should read.
But I also think people who read a lot tend to understand that there is value in forming and articulating deeper thoughts about the words we pour into our brains. I’ve had the great honor of attending a few clubs that chose to read my books and invite me into their conversations, and I am also an active member of a monthly book club. I don’t always like the books we read. In fact, most of them are in a genre I never sought out before joining and probably wouldn’t were I to quit attending.
I don’t go because I love every book, though I happily admit I have fallen in love with quite a few of the selections. I participate because to do so forces me to read outside my comfort zone, which expands my knowledge base, challenges my assumptions, and stimulates my curiosity.
It’s also good for me as a writer (the lone representative in my club of that peculiar breed of human) because I can tend to fall into the trap of reading in a particular way. I pick apart books to see what makes them tick. I incessantly analyze (and sometimes harshly judge) the use of adverbs, the pacing of scenes, the development of themes and subplots. Sometimes I get so concerned with craft that I forget to just let myself get swept up in the story.
Then I go to book club and I am reminded that readers don’t read just for deep intellectual stimulation or for controversial learning or for engaging in theological debates that could one day get them excommunicated from their Puritan communities. They also read because they like to gather with friends and enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and talk about what they liked or didn’t like about a book—how it made them feel, or think, or grow in surprising ways. And I think that’s a pretty good reason.
Are you part of a book club?