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A Brief History of Book Clubs, From Reading Circles to Celebrity Picks

Nowadays, book clubs come in so many different forms, ranging from traditional neighborhood small-group gatherings and virtual subscription services to celebrity book clubs. But at its heart is the same concept: a group of people reading the same text and engaging in provocative discussions about their interpretations of those words.

The idea is no doubt rooted in the innate human need to bond over a common subject, so it’s no surprise that the history of the literary discussion groups stretches back centuries, with the first traces going back to the 1600s. Though they’ve come to fruition in various forms, there’s one major commonality: women have always been a major impetus behind book clubs.

Early Roots

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Some believe the earliest hint of a book club happened back in 1634, when Puritan leader Anne Hutchinson held discussions focused on the weekly sermons given on board a boat heading toward the Massachusetts Bay Colony. By 1636, she started expanding on those thoughts and held meetings that up to 80 people would attend. However, a year later, she was shut down by the leadership for fear her ideas were “dangerous.” If anything, that simply showed the power of meeting to exchange ideas.

Perhaps more familiar in format was the literary society Junto (also known as the Leather Apron Club), formed by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia in 1727. The club had a dozen members, but instead of discussing books, they covered popular topics of the moment from politics and morality to science and philosophy. It was through those conversations that the need for better access to books was raised, and in 1731, the Library Company of Philadelphia, America’s first successful lending library, was founded.

In the late 1700s, book clubs as we traditionally know them started to take shape in the form of reading circles. In the 1760s, writer Hannah Adams shared her poetry and prose with her Medford, Massachusetts group, while poet Milcah Martha Moore collected women’s writings in her circle. Essayist Hannah Mather Crocker focused her Boston group in the 1770s on science and literature and wrote a treatise called “Observations on the Real Rights of Women.” A Black women’s literary group called the Society of Young Ladies was formed in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1827, and then spread to New York, Providence, Boston, and Philadelphia.

Around this time, American lyceums started up and centered around both lectures and discussions on issues of the day. Familiar names like Susan B. Anthony, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau all spoke at these lyceums.

The Rise of Women’s Voices

Painting of Margaret Fuller.
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While famous men were associated with Junto and the lyceums, many of the ones that formed around literary works were women-led — and for good reason. Women’s voices were often pushed to the sidelines, so this was a way for women to express themselves and prove their worth.

Margaret Fuller, a journalist and the first female war correspondent, is most often credited for holding the precursor to today’s book clubs when she gathered a group in a room near Boston Common in 1839 for what she termed “Conversations.” The members she recruited had to have a curiosity to push beyond the limits, or as she wrote, be “desirous to answer the great questions,” citing the two “provocative questions” as being “What were we born to do?” and “How shall we do it?”

Those questions provoked discussions that women hadn’t been conditioned to pursue, as one woman who attended said that Fuller “opened the book of life and helped us to read it for ourselves,” while Fuller herself deemed the group a “real society” formed upon “patience, mutual reverence, and fearlessness.”

That sense of female empowerment became pervasive — an awakening of sorts for women —  with literary societies forming all over the country. Many towns and villages had a women's literary group by the start of the Civil War. Some were offshoots of other organizations, from church groups and the National Council of Jewish Women to the American Association of University Women. Others like Friends in Council, founded by Sarah Atwater Denman in 1866 in Quincy, Illinois, were formed with the sole purpose of being a club to discuss literature and philosophy.

And the growth continued. “Well into the 1900s, book clubs continued to serve these dual purposes: functioning as both an intellectual outlet and a radical political tool,” The Washington Post reported.

Commercialization of Book Clubs

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But there was one major stumbling block. The bulk of Americans didn’t have easy access to books since they didn’t live near a bookstore or library. Though some department stores and drugstores did carry them, there wasn’t a large number of books to choose from.

Seeing the need for books to become more accessible, advertising executive Harry Scherman came up with an idea: mailing books directly to American homes. In 1926, he started the Book of the Month Club and recruited an expert panel to choose the best of the upcoming month’s new releases for eager readers to find in their mailboxes. With the mass numbers, he printed lower-cost versions with cheaper paper and fewer margins and within two years of its start, there were 100,000 subscribers.

While its taste was often hailed, especially when it picked Gone With the Wind in 1936, it also received criticism that its choices were swayed by favoritism. Also, much like today with digital books, the set-up was criticized for taking people away from the existing bookstores.

And it wasn’t the only club of the sort. Samuel W. Craig started The Literary Guild in 1927 with the same idea, and A Great Books Program was formed around 1947 and went on to release a 54-volume set of the most essential literary works through Encyclopedia Britannica. By the end of the 1950s, the program had 50,000 registered readers.

Celebrity Influence

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Perhaps no other force has had a bigger impact on the industry than Oprah’s Book Club, which Oprah Winfrey introduced on her popular talk show on September 17, 1996.

“I feel strongly that, no matter who you are, reading opens doors and provides, in your own personal sanctuary, an opportunity to explore and feel things, the way other forms of media can not,” Winfrey told Publishers Weekly. “I want books to become part of my audience’s lifestyle, for reading to become a natural phenomenon with them, so that it is no longer a big deal.”

But it was a big deal. Her first selection, Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Deep End of the Ocean, went from a 100,000 first-print run to 850,000 copies three months later after Winfrey’s stamp of approval. It also landed on The New York Times bestseller list for 29 weeks.

Mitchard’s novel was a precursor to what could happen when Winfrey selected a book for her club. The impact of Winfrey’s stamp of approval was gigantic. Within the first three years, the club had 28 consecutive best-sellers and was responsible for the sale of more than 20 million books, which grossed more than $175 million.

The on-air format of the book club developed over the years. It started as 15 to 20-minute segments and eventually took over entire episodes of the show, as the books often served as fodder for hot topics, such as identity, family roots, religion and love. But at its core was Winfrey talking to audience members and reading quotes from viewers who had already read the book.

Some have held onto Winfrey’s model with in-person discussions, while the 1990s saw movement online since being in the same place became less of a prerequisite than sharing the same taste in literature and discussion. Mark Zuckerberg tried to start his own Facebook take through his A Year of Books in 2015, while actress Reese Witherspoon put her own spin as the “book-lover-in-chief” of Reese’s Book Club, which launched in 2017.

Whatever format they’re in, book clubs today are still dominated by women, with nearly 88% of participants in private groups being female, and 63% of them having advanced degrees, The Washington Post reported. After all, reading has long served as a superpower for women. “Getting my library card was like citizenship, it was like American citizenship,” Winfrey told Life of a childhood rite of passage. “Reading and being able to be a smart girl was my only sense of value, and it was the only time I felt loved.”