It is believed that book clubs first started in the United States in the 17th century. The first book clubs had been about embracing the disenfranchised and women. Their focus had been to first give women an opportunity to read and discuss; later, to review and critique; and still later, to write. Today’s book clubs seem to follow the same pattern, either evolving along that very chain or specialising in one or more elements of the chain. Book clubs fall into several categories, most of which are very similar around the world.
The first is what may be referred to as the Purist. This is the book club whose central premise is to encourage reading and discussion. These clubs are small, no more than twelve to fifteen members, closed to new members unless an old one leaves, have the reputation of being elitist private clubs but also democratic and diverse in both their approach to enlisting new members and their book selection. Ramona Parsani started Bookies in 2006, sixteen years ago, and has ensured that her book club does not veer off reading and slide into socialising, wine drinking, and wordling, as do most book clubs that fall into the second category – the hybrid. This one is more of a social club, and it’s probably the most prevalent around the world. The idea is to promote reading and discussion, and the book of the month does come up from time to time over the course of the meeting. However, getting people to first select a book, then read the book, and then meet is a challenge that is not for the faint of heart.
A third kind of book club prevalent today is what can be referred to as a storytelling club. This one is usually run by an individual or a small group of individuals who pick the book of the month, read it, summarise it, and share the summary with the larger group. A small minority may read the book in advance and offer a discussion point or two, but mostly, it is a listening exercise, with all plot twists, red herrings, and surprise endings exposed. This type of book club is primarily for people who want to know what’s new and exciting in the literary world but don’t have the eyesight, the attention span, or the time to read the whole book.
A fourth and final book club is the Influencer/Marketing book club. This category of book clubs in the US has become a major influencer of what people read. Oprah Winfrey, the de facto founder of the celebrity book clubs that began as part of her popular show, now runs a monthly chat on Apple TV+ to discuss the selected book with its author. Other celebrity book clubs include the Belletrist by Emma Roberts, an effort to support women authored books, Reese’s Book Club, by Reese Witherspoon, also purports to support female authors, Our Shared Shelf by Emma Watson, which addresses topics related to equality and feminism, Noname by Chicago rapper and poet, Noname for books by authors of colour and many others. There is a common thread among many of the newer book clubs – support for underrepresented groups, mostly women. Oprah’s book club looks for compelling reads, – gender, genre, race, no bar. Some of these book clubs have transitioned into mentoring new writers. Reese’s Book Club, in its Lit Up division, has created a fellowship program for five deserving manuscripts a year. The writers get three months of mentoring and support from published writers who have been promoted by Reese’s Book Club.
The Influencer/Marketing book club is gaining ground in India rapidly and is where reviewing and critiquing begins to happen, with a possible progression toward writing and publishing. Booknerds in Dehradun is one such enterprise that began as a way to bring together a reading community and offer it an opportunity to read carefully curated books from around the world. Rohan Raj, co-founder of Booknerds, says that his intent from the start (in 2015) was to specifically counter private book clubs that attract mature and experienced readers and take pride in being elitist, closed, and hard to get into. He wanted to create a club that addressed the mainstream, the masses, with books that were easy to read at first, gradually introducing more complex literary novels, and well-written genre fiction. The Booknerds community exists both in Dehradun and on-line. Rohan realised very quickly that the next step for his readers was to meet the authors, to interact with them, and to create a direct connection between author and reader. Soon, these author events, organic thus far, caught the eye of large publishers and publicists, both in-house and independent, who were ready and able to pay per event. Rohan insists that the expectation of publishers has always been that these events be real, not contrived, that actual readers ask questions of the author, and that reviews of the book in advance of the event be true and factual, not propaganda provided by the publisher.
Rohan states that Booknerds is a literary start-up, an enterprise focused on encouraging the reading habit and also a vehicle to increase book sales – a phenomenon that helps everyone with any connection to books.
Book clubs in India are an essential component of our social fabric – reading is a habit that must be renewed and revived at every level, with vernacular literature, translations, and English language writings, whatever it takes. Book clubs connect books with readers – it is their moral responsibility to ensure diversity of topics, genres, author origins, and writing styles. Let’s read more and discuss more, even if it is with a daily dose of Wordle and a monthly glass (es) of wine.