If people join book clubs – or don’t – it’s mainly about the books. Or at least that’s what people claim.
Last month I asked for input about why people join – or don’t join – book clubs. I started wondering about this when a literature professor friend said she’d never join one. Reading and discussing books was something she did for a living, so why would she bother joining a club to do the same thing?
Her remark made me wonder about why I, as a writer and avid reader, had been part of so many book clubs throughout my adult life. If book clubs were really just about reading and discussing books, it made sense that a person whose life revolved around them already might not want any part of them. So I asked people what value book clubs brought to their lives.
Not surprisingly, the answer depended on personality, schedule, and serendipity, i.e., having the right kind of book club cross your path at the right time. Different clubs served different purposes, including expanding reading choices, providing a chance to reconsider old favorites, and, sometimes, simply offering someplace to go, or a break from routine. In some cases, too, book clubs meant a night free from cooking and away from childcare, a good glass of wine, and genuine social support. No two book clubs were alike, and not everyone wanted what they had to offer, regardless of their relationship with books.
One thing became clear though: while books are the glue that hold these clubs together, long-lasting book clubs are not just about books. Some book clubs start out as social networks that eventually add books into the mix. Others start with a book focus and eventually grow social roots.
From Books to Friends and Friends to Books
Most of the book clubs I heard about met monthly, and many had kept up that pace for years, sometimes decades. Judy Bosselman Richardson’s club in Pennysylvania has been meeting every month for 13 years. One of my current book clubs started when the founding groups’ children were in preschool. They’re now celebrating these children’s weddings. Cheryl Flack’s book club in Evanston, IL has continued for 22 years.
Unquestionably, the number one book-related reason people said they were in these clubs was to read books they might never have chosen independently. Many of the long-lasting book clubs – like the group Danielle Brooks began in Annapolis nearly nine years ago – started with the express purpose of getting (some people said “forcing”) the group to read, or to expand their reading options. But it’s often the social connections that kept the group together.
Cheryl, for example, said her book club started “as an outlet to give new working mothers a goal of reading one book a month.” What has kept it together for 22 years, however, is “friendships and connections.”
In other cases the friendships came first. One common pattern is a book club that evolves from a playgroup, or mothers’ support network. One of the book clubs I’m in had these exact origins – although I joined it long after the playgroup had disbanded.
Lisa VanBuskirk’s book club started as a “mom’s night out” through a playgroup. “The playgroup died,” she said, “but the book club is still going strong, based on friendships and mutual enjoyment of all kinds of books.”
If books and social networks are inextricably mixed in these long-lasting clubs, so are books, food, and drink. Another draw for Lisa, for example, has been “making Dutch, Mexican, and Afghan food, or meeting at a German restaurant, when I’ve picked books from those cultures.”
The main reason that people cited for not joining a book club is independence. They simply don’t like having their reading habits dictated by others. Interestingly, this is precisely the reason why many other people do join book clubs.
Phyllis Abramczyk Payne of Fairfax, VA isn’t averse to book clubs in general, but she’s not in one at the moment. The advantage, she said, is that she gets to read “what I want to read for pleasure.”
Similarly, Alpharetta, GA’s Nancy Daffner said that while she would probably enjoy the discussions, she hasn’t joined a book club “for fear of deadlines taking the pleasure out of my reading.” Still, she often requests the lists of her friends in book clubs to see what they are reading.
The other main reason for not joining a book club was not a lack of desire. It was a lack of time.
“I don’t think I could keep to the schedule,” said Claudia O’Keefe, a traffic engineer. “Sometimes I have time to read a book over a few days, and sometimes life gets crazy and my books sit for days or weeks. I love the idea though. Maybe one day….”
“I was a member of two clubs, but once I returned to the fulltime workforce, I found that I just could not keep up with the books,” said Melissa Stanton, a Davidsonville, MD writer and editor. “Also, many of the selected books were so depressing and nightmare inducing they just weren’t good for me to read before bed.”
On the other hand, Melissa said she does read tons of news media – which, she noted, is often nightmare-inducing, too – and she is still an honorary member of one book group, which she attends to learn about books she didn’t read.
For some people the social aspect of book clubs is actually a turn-off, as is the pressure to play host.
“As an avid reader, I always wanted to join a book club but never had time because teaching took 75 hours a week,” noted Terry Farnan Bosworth of Issaquah, WA. But now that she’s retired from teaching, she still isn’t joining. “Coming up with a snack contribution always added stress to my life. And I don’t drink wine.”