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Book Groups Are Booming!
Why Joining One Might Make Sense
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Book groups have long been a popular outlet for those seeking connection and belongingness. Gatherings have occurred everywhere from dining room tables to bookstores, libraries, coffeehouses, and other public venues where readers can get together and explore a particular book. And with the rise of social media, growing numbers of these book communities now offer expanded reach and flexibility for those seeking to participate.
When the Covid-19 pandemic confined many of us to our homes, we often found respite in fellow readers online who were anxious to maintain some semblance of human connection. The health crisis led to soaring new heights of reading interest throughout the world.
Here in the U.S. scores of Americans participate in book clubs every month. In particular, digital platforms like Literati are among the many popular spaces for readers to connect. From Facebook to Instagram to book-specific apps like the newly minted app Tertulia, readers are turning to digital in record numbers for reading outlets
Major publishers like Penguin Random House are also getting in on the action through communities like Random House Reader’s Circle, the Reading Group Center, and Read it Forward.
Book clubs have often sparked resistance and revolution. Naturally, such groups contributed to the women's rights movement. They gathered hundreds of women together for lectures and readings. They opened libraries, generated scholarships for women's colleges, and even formed girls' schools.
Historically, one of the earliest book clubs saw its genesis in 1634. This movement was led by a woman by the name of Anne Hutchinson, who organized a women’s group on weekly sermons. The group first met aboard a ship headed to Massachusetts Bay Colony, where the ship's general assembly condemned it. This censure, however, failed to prevent these women from gathering to discuss these important texts. Hutchinson, in fact, continued to hold these study group gatherings in her own home.
In 1996, Oprah’s Book Club (OBC) launched to much fanfare throughout the U.S. Leveraging her forever popular national platform, Oprah facilitated discussions through books she personally selected. Her first book selection was The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard.
Book clubs have often long sparked resistance and revolution, particularly related to causes such as the women's rights movement and social justice. Thousands of passionate readers get together for lectures and readings through these forums. Discussions cover the gamut from literature, philosophy, and morality to culture and politics.
In 2019, Publishers Weekly released the “The Inner Lives of Book Clubs,” one of the first surveys to take a deep dive into the book club experience. Here are some of the findings:
• Most book clubs stay focused on discussing a book for at least 40 minutes of each meeting, and, generally speaking, the longer a group spends on book discussion, the happier its members are with the club.
• Overwhelmingly, book club members want to read books that will provoke good conversation—97% of book club members consider that a core criterion in the books they choose, while 73% also actively seek out books that challenge and 55% look for books that are controversial.
• It’s not all women: 88% of private book clubs are all-women groups, but almost half of all public groups, such as those hosted by libraries, include men.
Damon Maassen, a Senior Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consultant in Chicago joined a book group called “The Social Justice Salon” during the pandemic. The book club, Damon says, is composed primarily of HR leaders that reside in the New York area. He adds:
“The group had been in place probably a year before I joined at the beginning of last year. I discovered it through one of my LinkedIn connections from whom I received an invite.”
The group, he says, is a collective of passionate HR leaders who wanted to learn more about the systemic inequities that were in place and how they can not only guide the organizations that they are a part of but larger communities. This led to a series of books being identified for these discussions. Says Damon:
“I was so very excited to receive the invitation to join. Honestly, I thought it would just be a standard book club. But it has evolved far beyond that with all of the great learning along with being a safe space to share where we all are in our learning.”
Asked about what books the group has covered, Damon had this to say:
“We are currently reading How The Word Is Passed by Clint Smith about the reckoning of the history of slavery. It’s a page-turner for sure. How to Be an Antiracist was at the top of the list a while back. Caste by Isabel Wilkerson was a very powerful book. And our group really, really enjoyed “One Drop.”
Damon says that the demographics of the group were a bit lacking in people of color before he and a couple of others joined.
“I can tell that since we joined it has brought a different perspective because we are also able to share our lived experiences with racism and other inequities that are out there as well. That has, I think, elevated not only the learning and experiences of the readings but we now have some lived experiences as a part of our discussions as well.”
Damon says that the group also has a very nice balance from a gender perspective in addition to becoming more racially diverse. There are also members of the LGBTQ community that are in the group as well as those from various religious backgrounds.
“I would say that over the past nine months or so, it has just continued to become more and more diverse and inclusive. It’s phenomenal how we have all come together. It’s a safe space to bring our learned experiences as well as learn from one another as well.”
In terms of the logistics of the group, Damon adds that the discussion occurs weekly online.
“We do pass the torch around from week to week in terms of who will be the lead moderator. And then depending upon the book that we are reading, we’ll have some discussion guides available to aid in focusing the discussion.”
Damon notes that the group members also try to ensure that there isn’t too much structure thus preventing the conversation from being fluid and navigable based on what surfaces in the discussion. He says that the group may also pause the assigned readings to ensure that there is room to discuss current events that are happening in the day-to-day world. This, he says, allows the group to begin to connect what they’re reading to action in the real world.
I then asked Damon whether there were any particular books from the group that prompted him to look at life in a different way. He responded,
“I would say that it started with How To Be Antiracist was then complemented by CASTE and then The Sum of Us. In my own personal journey, this series of books helped me understand the systems around racism that are in place and how they have been in place since the founding of this country. I wasn’t aware of a lot of this before covering these books or I was led to believe that these systemic issues were no longer in play.”
“Through my experiences with these three books, it has helped me look just beyond the individual level in terms of how we are really going to undo generations of racism. What I’ve learned is that we also have to dismantle the systems that are in place. Having that combined approach has helped me make sense of the madness of these times and really validated what is currently still in play, while not falling victim to the gaslighting that continues to be out there.”
In a concluding question, I asked Damon what sort of advice he had for those looking to join a group or start a group. Here’s what he had to share:
“I think as a group comes together it’s important to really draw out what the objectives of the group, the outcomes that are important to achieve along with what the rules of engagement are. As you draw that contract, so to speak, it is important to revisit them from time to time to see how well the group is adhering to those guidelines that have been identified, along with adjustments and revisions that need to be made….
… when you have that upfront contracting, it ensures that the level of satisfaction and desired outcomes are achieved as the group continues to navigate through reading and spirited discussion.”