Unfortunately, your access has now expired. But there’s good news—by subscribing today, you will receive 22 issues of Booklist magazine, 4 issues of Book Links, and single-login access to Booklist Online and over 200,000 reviews.
Your access to Booklist Online has expired. If you still subscribe to the print magazine, please proceed to your profile page and check your subscriber number against a current magazine mailing label. (If your print subscription has lapsed, you will need to renew.)
Free Trial, activate profile, or subscribe
Find more Carte Blanche
Yes, class, there were book discussion groups before Oprah. In fact, some say the first book discussion group in America was founded in the seventeenth century by the Puritan religious leader Anne Hutchinson, whose group gathered to discuss religious tracts, which doesn’t sound like much fun. Maybe that’s why she then bade her group good-bye to found the state of Rhode Island.
Flash-forward, now, to the eighteenth century, and we have the literary salon, which flourished in Europe, especially in France, where the literary gatherings continued into the twentieth century, most notably in the one conducted in Paris by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, the one, that is, where folks such as Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso were fixtures. But I’m ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the nineteenth century and 1878 to the founding of the Chautauqua movement, formally known as the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. It spawned book discussion groups nationwide, some 10,000 by the end of the century. The most famous of the Chautauquas was founded in the 1870s on the banks of beautiful Lake Chautauqua in southwestern New York State.
I became familiar with this one in the 1950s, when I was working as a page at the Logansport–Cass County (IN) Public Library. Every summer, Miss Holmes, the city librarian, and Miss Holden, the county librarian, packed a picnic lunch and drove off to spend two weeks at Chautauqua. Since neither of the ladies was exactly a ton of fun, I was never moved to go there myself, although I drove past it several years ago and got a speeding ticket for my trouble. But I digress. Back to book discussion groups and, this time, to post–WWII America and the inception of the Great Books Movement, which began as part of the curriculum at Columbia University and the University of Chicago and, by the 1950s, had attracted more than 50,000 studious Americans, who regularly attended Great Books seminars, often held at the local public library. I confess I always confused the Great Books with the Five Foot Shelf of Books, 50 volumes of great literature selected by Harvard president Charles W. Eliot in post–Civil War America. I was familiar with this gallimaufry of great books, since my great-great uncle Chauncey M. Abbott owned a set, which, as a kid, I coveted. Alas, when Chauncey died, my uncle Frank unilaterally took possession of them. Of all sad words of tongue and pen, etc. . . .
Anyway, this brings us to the redoubtable Oprah and her book club, which began in 1996 and spawned countless formal and informal book discussion groups all across this great land of ours until 2011 and the end of La Winfrey’s TV show. Happily, it—the book club not the TV show—rose again like the phoenix in 2012 as the Oprah Book Club 2.0.
Lastly in our brief survey of the history of the book club, we have the One Book, One Community movement, which got under way in 1996 in Seattle, courtesy of librarian Nancy Pearl. Thereafter, the National Endowment for the Arts—in the wake of its alarming 2004 report “Reading at Risk,” which found reading to be, well, at risk—started its Big Read program, which selects communities across America and funds their programs. Some of the books that have been read as part of this program include the usual suspects; e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, The Great Gatsby, etc.
All this has set me to wondering what books I’d discuss if I were to start a group of my own. For starters, they’d all be young adult books, of course. I’d probably begin with Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, not only because it offers rich opportunities in itself but also because it invites ancillary discussion of its driving philosophy of determinism and of the work of Cormier’s acknowledged mentor, Grahame Greene. Next I’d go for Francesca Lia Block’s five-volume novel Dangerous Angels (the Weetzie Bat books). Again, the books themselves offer an ample field for discussion, but they also invite consideration of Imagist poetry, a heavy influence on Block’s style. That, in turn, offers an invitation to look at Imagist poet Amy Lowell’s work. Another aspect of Block’s work, magic realism, would lead us, by extension, to the work of Gabriel García Márquez. And so forth. Once finished with Block, we might go on to British novelist Aidan Chambers’ masterpiece, This Is All, the most in-depth character study of a teenage girl extant. This could lead us to another great literary portrait, Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, which could lead us to the French symbolist movement, and so, as Kurt Vonnegut used to say, it goes . . .
So what are the benefits of such programs? The NEA has the answer, identifying half-a-dozen bennies: (1.) Reading encourages higher education; (2.) Good reading skills improve the economy; (3.) Good readers have access to higher-paying jobs; (4.) Reading provides opportunities for job growth. (5.) Reading increases cultural and civic participation; and (6.) Reading encourages active citizenship.
I confess that I have never been part of a formal book discussion group—well, that’s not quite true. For about 12 minutes, I was once part of an informal group that met to discuss the works of Shakespeare but quickly devolved into an opportunity to drink wine, eat canapés, and gossip, a danger that faces a lot of book groups, I gather, although one of the benefits of these groups that the NEA doesn’t mention is companionship. Think, in this connection, of that famous book discussion group the Inklings, whose members included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. What would it have been like to have been a fly on the wall when those guys got together? To find out, read the marvelous new book The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip and Carol Zaleski. Then, class, pour yourself a glass of wine and discuss!
Free Trial, activate profile, or subscribe