The unstoppable tradition of the book club

A reader shares her book club pride
A reader shares her book club pride
Infowidget / Creative Commons via Flickr

As long as there have been books, there have been people gathering to discuss them.

From extravagant Paris salons to humble candle-lit Midwestern affairs, the book club's roots run deep. Today, an estimated five million Americans belong to a book club: Some intensely literary, some strictly online, some mystery, some themed, some more Chardonnay than Charles Dickens.

A new personality has just entered the scene, with the potential to build the largest book club ever. Will it work?

In the beginning

The history of book clubs in America is intimately tied to women's rights. Excluded from intellectual gatherings and most colleges and universities, what was a woman with an interest in reading to do?

In the 1800s, she got creative. Meeting in the back of bookshops or by the light of candles in a living room, women founded their own reading groups to continue their education.

In 1877, the Woman's Reading Club of Mattoon met for the first time with the aim of expanding their horizons and discussing new ideas. Today, the Illinois group is still going strong and may be the longest-running book club in the country.

Groups like these made literary discourse more accessible to the masses, and particularly to women.

In the 20th century, book clubs collided with commerce. An enterprising reader, Harry Scherman, launched the Book of the Month Club in 1926, sending volumes straight to people's homes on a subscription model.

By 1950, more than half a million households belonged to the club. America was reading together, en masse. Similar groups sprang up around the country, including the Literary Guild and the Great Books Foundation.

The Oprah years

You can't talk about book clubs without talking about Oprah Winfrey. When the then-talk show host launched her book club in 1996, she set off a reading frenzy unlike any other. Any title Oprah picked turned to gold; books jumped up the bestseller lists when she uttered their name. How else do you explain how "Anna Karenina," first published in 1877, claimed a Number One spot on a 2004 bestsellers list?

Oprah's endorsements were so influential, publishers printed special editions of the selected books bearing the "Oprah's Book Club" mark. More than 55 million of these specially marked editions, spread across 70 titles, have been sold.

When Oprah's talk show ended in 2011, many feared her book club would go dark, too, but she was at the ready with Oprah's Book Club 2.0. Her picks are much less frequent — she has only selected three titles in the past three years — but she hasn't lost her touch. When she chose Cheryl Strayed's "Wild" in 2012, it hit Number One on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for several weeks.

Moving online

A "book club" can now mean many things, from a bring-an-appetizer neighborhood affair to a massive online discussion. The latest entrant onto the book club scene knows a thing or two about online discussions: It's Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.

Zuckerberg turned his New Year's resolution — read more books — into a worldwide challenge. He plans to pick one book every two weeks and hold a discussion about it on the Facebook page for his project, "A Year of Books." He has arguably the largest audience of any book club leader, ever — more than 1.35 billion people have Facebook accounts. How many of these users he can convert into readers remains to be seen. The "Year of Books" page has racked up 250,000-plus "likes" to date (Shakira, for what it's worth, has more than 106 million).

Zuckerberg's first book pick was Moises Naim's "The End of Power." It instantly sold out on Amazon. The publisher, Basic Books, hustled to get the book back in stock. "So far the numbers aren't Oprah numbers," says Basic Books vice president and publisher Lara Heimert,"But she wasn't picking a new book every other week! This is a new experiment. It remains to be seen what kind of traction the club will gain over time."

The scheduled discussion of Naim's book on Facebook hit a technical hurdle, namely Facebook's own algorithms. As The Washington Post reports, even though a quarter of a million people "liked" the project, very few actually took part in the discussion. The reason? It never showed up on their Facebook feed. "Facebook had, in essence, hid its own news algorithmically," writes the Post's Caitlin Dewey.

'The Better Angels of Our Nature'
Mark Zuckerberg's second selection for his Facebook book club
Book cover courtesy of publisher

Zuckerberg will try again next week, with a discussion of "The Better Angels of Our Nature" by Steven Pinker. Asking people to finish an 800-page tome on the decline of violence in only two weeks is certainly ambitious, but publishers remain optimistic about the project.

"In an age of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, it's harder than ever to get people to spend five or ten hours with a long-form argument," Heimert said. "So it's particularly exciting when someone who has made a huge career out of social media recognizes — very publicly — the great value of a good, old-fashioned book."

Join the conversation. What makes a successful book club? Will you join Mark Zuckerberg's book club on Facebook?

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