The Radical History of Book Clubs: Connecting Us through Literature

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2021-12-08

I must admit, before I wrote this blog, I didn’t know much about book clubs. I’ve never been part of one, or had any interest in joining (though I do have friends and family who participate in book clubs).  I also never really thought about how they came to be, or why. But as it turns out, one of the most interesting things about book clubs is their connection to the early women’s rights movement and the antislavery movement in the United States.



Book Clubs and Women’s Rights


In the United States in the 1700s there are records of colonial women meeting in towns and villages to discuss their own writing, or poetry of the day. In the 1800s, though, is when things really picked up steam. Women were excluded from colleges, universities, and pretty much all types of intellectual gatherings. However, just as there are today, back then there were many, many women who were passionate about learning and reading. It is human nature to want to share our experiences with others, especially when we come across something (like a book) that we find inspirational, thought-provoking, or transformative, and that aspect of human nature wasn’t (and isn’t!) exclusive to men. So, barred from the gatherings of male intellectuals and forbidden from pursuing schooling, these women started some intellectual gatherings of their own. They met in their living rooms, or in the back of bookshops, discussing books by candlelight.


In 1877, the Women’s Reading Club of Mattoon, Illinois, met for the very first time, to discuss new and progressive ideas and pursue knowledge and learning. That same club still exists today, and is the longest-running book club in America. Groups like the Women’s Reading Club made reading and learning more accessible to women, in a time and space where women were not allowed to participate in academia.


Some have argued that the first book club ever recorded actually goes back much, much earlier – to 1634. Anne Hutchinson, who was aboard a ship on its way to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, organized a women’s group with the goal of examining and discussing the weekly sermons. The group was condemned by others on the ship, but it didn’t stop the women from meeting and discussing the texts. Hutchinson even continued to host a Bible study group once she arrived at her new home.



Book Clubs and Black American History


The beginning of book clubs, reading groups, and literary societies in the United States created shared communities that in turn impacted the antislavery movement. Enslaved African Americans were criminally prohibited from reading, but historical records show that freed men and women were creating literary groups as early as 1821 to offer ways to make up for faulty or missed education – a revolutionary act. In 1828, freed black men started a group known as the Coloured Reading Society, based out of Philadelphia. This group was exclusive to men, but only a few years later, with the popularity of women’s “culture clubs,” the Society of Young Women and the Philadelphia Female Literacy Association were founded (in 1827 and 1831, respectively). These groups offered a space for black women to discuss the literature of the day as well as critique their own writings and pieces.


Black literary societies were often very active in the antislavery movement, collecting signatures for petitions and raising money for abolitionist causes. The abolishment of slavery in the 1860s and the turn of the century saw the spreading of both literary societies and literacy itself. Throughout the 1900s more and more reading groups for black men and women were founded, and the Civil Rights Movement meant that many people were reading more and meeting more often to help support Black American authors.



The Book Club Phenomenon


In 1926, the idea of what a “book club” could be radically shifted with the introduction of the “Book of the Month” club, launched by a book-lover named Harry Scherman. The club worked on a subscription model, and participants received their books each month, delivered right to their doors. By the time 1950 rolled around, over 500,000 households belonged to the club, reading the same books as their friends or neighbours. The Book of the Month Club even provided options for Canadians, offering an entirely separate catalogue for Canadian readers.



The First Book Clubs in Canada


The very first book club in Canada was launched by the T. Eaton Company, which offered customers what they called a “selective literary service.” Book selections were made by committee, and each month the chosen titles were offered to customers for, on average, $2.00. At its most popular, the Eaton Book Club had 5,000 members; however, it only lasted for four years.


In 1959, Peter and Carol Martin launched the Readers Club of Canada, and theirs was the only book club in Canada to provide readers with an entirely Canadian list of selections. The club ran until 1978, when it was sold, and lasted another three years before being shut down by the new owners.



The Oprah Effect


In 1996, the concept of the book club received another shake-up when Oprah launched “Oprah’s Book Club.” At the height of her popularity, anything Oprah recommended instantly became a bestseller, with copies flying off the shelves. Her seal was so sought after that publishers would reprint books that made the cut with special covers bearing a seal that marked them as handpicked by Oprah herself. When Oprah’s talk show ended in 2011, she had picked 70 titles for her book club, selling a combined 55 million copies of these specially marked editions! Oprah’s Book Club still exists, though the picks occur much more infrequently – even still, her recommendation carries weight, and any title selected undoubtedly sees a jump in sales.



The Shift to Virtual Book Clubs


While the shift to virtual gatherings and events was heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the concept of virtual book clubs actually started becoming more popular in 2015, with the launch of Facebook’s “A Year of Books.” The idea was that every two weeks for a whole year, Mark Zuckerberg would pick a new title for participants to discuss. Considering Facebook’s wide reach and number of users, the project wasn’t exactly considered a huge success right off the bat, but the first pick for the club did sell out on Amazon almost immediately, so (like Oprah) Zuckerberg’s recommendation had some pull.


Nonetheless, the idea grew and became more popular, leading to large-scale clubs of today like Reese’s Book Club, led by actor Reese Witherspoon.



Book Clubs and Shared Communities


The rise in large-scale book clubs isn’t to say that the concept of what a book club is has radically shifted for most people. Most book clubs are smaller, and have ten or fewer members. Many book clubs are formed due to shared interests, or even shared identities. Some clubs are devoted to reading the works of a single author. Some are genre-specific. Other clubs read books that each focus on the same topic or subject. Some are devoted to books about an interest shared by group members. There are clubs for LGBTQ+ readers, clubs for mothers, clubs for hobbyists, clubs for working professionals, clubs for ethnicities and races of all kinds…the options are endless.


Book clubs are often made fun of as frivolous (and markedly feminine) spaces, where middle-aged women drink wine and gossip instead of actually discussing any books (and even if that is true for some clubs, so what?). Even as they are dismissed today, though, the book club has always been something radical – a space where people can come together and discuss their responses to what they read. Even more than that, book clubs provide a way to forge social networks, new friendships and supportive social circles, which are (as we have seen over the past year and a half) so very important in difficult times.


Books have the ability to bring us together, to bridge gaps between us and offer meaningful ways of connecting with others. What a book club looks like has shifted and changed with the times, from huddled meetings in the back rooms of shops or a friend’s parlour, to the virtual book club spaces of today, but its purpose has always been the same: to connect us through literature.


Want a great editing tip in your inbox each month? Sign up for our enewsletter today!