Writing about book clubs in America in a relatively short column is somewhat like trying to write about the big bang theory.
Everyone knows that big bang is shorthand for the popular theory of the origin of the universe. Sort of. The theory has grown and changed over the years – an ever expanding universe, they say, but bound to contract some day.
Who started it? Ha! Was there a need for a universe? Hmmm. Is there but one big U or is our universe one among billions or...already we’re in the weeds.
So it is with the world (the universe?) of book clubs.
Where was the first book club born/founded/created/ dreamed up? Who or what did that?
Did there have to be a book extant for there to be a first book club? Was the first book used as a club by early earth dwelling standup mammals?
Experts disagree, but I think it’s pretty clear that after the “book as a weapon” club was established, the cookbook evolved. After that, early humans began reading recipes out loud around the fire in the cave. Discussions ensued and later, pastries were served.
There. That was the first book club. It was near Flowery Branch.
Okay, it’s time for my meds now. The currently more popular version of book club origins is summarized well in a Slate.com article by Nathan Heller.
“The modern domestic book group comes most directly from a push for women’s intellectual autonomy. Beginning in the mid-18th century in England, motivated women of means and leisure began hosting salons for each other at home, inviting (male) luminaries of the day over to serve as keynote guests. These salon-goers came to be called “bluestockings,” supposedly after one popular guest’s signature garment.
“By 1863 the term was a catchall descriptor for ‘pedantic or ridiculously literary ladies.’
“The first modern-style reading groups emerged out of this ‘ridiculously’ ambitious culture of self-education, taking form as refuges for women who wanted to get ahead and cultivate their minds outside an educational system to which they had no proper access.”
Over the decades, book-clubbing grew in popularity and the business of publishing books blossomed, with help along the way from the Book-Of-The-Month Club and the Literary Guild, both founded in the middle 1920s.
(I recommend highly Nathan Heller’s complete article on book clubs on Slate.com, posted July 29, 2011).
I doubt anyone knows the number of book clubs active in America now. I’ve seen estimates of from 250 thousand to two million. Their variety of focus is as large as the landscape and their range of interests is as expansive as the Hubble telescope can penetrate.
Just about every friend and friendly acquaintance we have is in a book club or knows someone who is.
There’s even a Twitter book club, in which online members can make small comments about big books. Women outnumber men by approximately a billion to one in book club membership, but men have a niche, if not the quiche in the world of book clubs.
I even saw a page online of so-called “Anti-Oprah books.”
• The Brothers Karamazov.
• Of Mice and Men.
• The Old Man and the Sea.
Good luck with that list, guys. It should be called the “Fifty Shades of Grey Hair” list.