By Sarah Ensor
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Book clubs have a long and interesting history
Issue 296

The world has never been so literate. Never before have so many people been able to read. Even those considered to be functionally illiterate in Britain will recognise dozens of words associated with brands and services when they go shopping or travel to work. Millions of people buy hobby or sports magazines, fiction, politics and history for their own pleasure and information. If you don’t go out looking for it, it’ll come through the letterbox – free newspapers, party political leaflets and if you’re lucky even your postal vote. Yet we are constantly being told our society is dumbing down. Most of us apparently are brain-dead couch potatoes watching reality TV while we make ourselves even stupider by eating white sugar. Arts programme presenters bemoan that we have bought 2 million copies of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (Corgi £6.99), keeping it at the top of the bestsellers when it’s a load of conspiracy theory rubbish. To argue this is to miss an important cultural trend, the popularising of books by word of mouth.

When Oprah started her book club in 1996 on TV, various responses were predictably racist and snobbish. Commentators saw black and white women at home during the day with young children and thought these were the last people who would be interested in books. Before she started to take a cut from those bearing her logo, Oprah brought books and their authors into people’s homes and made her audience feel comfortable with them. They could then go into a bookshop and ask for that one title without being intimidated by the thousands of others on display. Her book club has covered Longitudes and Attitudes (Penguin £8.99), a collection of Thomas Friedman’s columns about the 11 September attack on the World Trade centre. A month later they were discussing Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men (Penguin £7.99). She also ran Hate Crime: The Story of a Dragging in Jasper, Texas by Joyce King (Random House US £7.99) about the ‘modern day lynching’ of James Byrd Jr. In 1998 Byrd was chained to the back of a pick-up truck by three white men, who then dragged him to death. Then there has been the fiction of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, John Steinbeck, Carson McCullers and Rohinton Mistry.

Richard and Judy’s book club, a much more recent event, has done the same thing in Britain. It has made bestsellers of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon with its autistic teenage detective hero (Vintage £6.99), as well as Star of the Sea, Joseph O’Connor’s mystery thriller set on a ship packed with Irish refugees from the famine (Random House £6.99). They have talked about some good teen fiction and I’m Not the Only One by George Galloway (Penguin £7.99).

But capitalism persists, so many of their choices are neither political, nor progressive nor art. There is a constant stream of books about women’s appearance, marriage and aspirational living. That said, most people’s only collective experience now is work. Some have sport, often watched in the pub, but for thousands of us there is a gap that we’d like to fill with books we enjoy and want to share with other people.

This is not a new phenomenon. When Victor Gollancz and his chums first advertised their new Left Book Club in February 1936 they needed 2,000 members to make it work. By the end of the first year 40,000 people had signed up. The club developed into a network of forums whose speakers included Paul Robeson and Sylvia Pankhurst. The meetings branched out into socials and cultural events that covered every aspect of members’ interests from science to film and cycling clubs.

So it’s no wonder that we can organise nature walks on Hampstead Heath and Martin Smith’s meetings on John Coltrane: Jazz, Racism and Resistance (Bookmarks £5.99) pack jazz clubs wherever he goes. We all want to emerge ‘from night and silence. Alive into the substance of time.’

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