Words || Jade Toomey
On the third Thursday of every month, Mum would kick Dad out of the house so that her ladies could come over for book club.
“You don’t even talk about the books, Fran,” he’d protest, because the footy was on and he’d already changed out of his work pants. “You just drink mid-range Chardonnay and gossip.”
That was true. But none of us could stop the Karens and Sharons and Debbies who came in carpooled interludes, complementing our new Venetian blinds while juggling Low-Fat Chilly Philly and naughty chocolate slices with that month’s book tucked under their arms.
They, like millions of other women around the world, probably got the idea from Oprah’s Book Club. Beginning in 1996, hers was the hallmark of the book club boom that, in the past twenty years, has made literature professors irrelevant and cafes in bookshops a real thing. TIME Magazine even credited Oprah for “saving the alphabet” from daggy txt speak, and for that alone, Oprah, you have my heart forever.
I’d wager that academic R. Mark Hall is one of those bitter literature professors, because he says the “Oprahfication of literacy” has made us obsessed with dreary lowbrow reading. He thinks we like best sellers too much, rather than books with academic merit like Lord of the Flies and Hamlet. Tut tuts for us Nicholas Sparks loving fools!
But I’d like to wag my page-turning finger and say that book clubs are about more than the books, god dammit. They’re clubs, after all, so cubby house or not, by definition the book club is a space of welcome and belonging. More than that, though, number-crunching gods at The New York Times reckon that 93 per cent of book club members are also part of another club, a bigger one, which has achieved plenty throughout history: womanhood.
The ritual of women chatting about their emotional response to a book stems from the late 1700s, when under-stimulated American housewives realised they had a place on the intellectual table. They set the template that Oprah would follow two centuries later, with gatherings where women could openly chat how literature made them feel. I bet it was mostly disdain at Jane Austen skimping out on the sex scenes in Emma. “Flutter of pleasure” was as raunchy as she got.
Then in the 1820s, African American women, who were the most educationally disadvantaged demographic, advertised reading groups in Freedom’s Journal, the United States’ first African American newspaper. From this, the Saturday Nighters literary club was created “for the purpose of improvement in moral and literary pursuits.” This! This is where the heart of the book club (and a decent Saturday night) lies.
Book clubs’ demographics have been largely skewed towards college-educated women with a focus on self-development. And it’s no wonder! For generations we’ve been playing catch up with our male counterparts who had head starts in bloody well everything. Despite being restricted by education, convention, and bias, women have harnessed the humble book club as a tool for infiltrating intellectual culture. Where once book clubs replicated Bible-study groups to spread the good and holy word, women have embraced the fact that they can now spread multi-word messages like “nasty women are great women” and “education is a splendid thing because it gets me a job.” Today women are the dominant readers of novels, so much that British author Ian McEwan declared, “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead”.
That prediction was made more than a decade ago, and now book clubs exist beyond women in living rooms and cafes. The power of the library card has “Oprahfied” Twitter, Instagram and podcasts everywhere, so I’m inclined to believe the novel needn’t worry about pissing off to library heaven soon. (See Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales’ podcast Chat 10 Looks 3 for example of classic literature banter. It’s majestic.) Goodreads has more members than South Korea has people – 55 million! – two thirds of which are women and some of the Internet’s most honest reviewers: “This book reads like an instruction manual for drawing right angles.” Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged clearly, uh, defies expectations.
Even so, the biggest champion of the modern book club is the celebrity: Emma Watson’s feminist book club ‘Our Shared Shelf’ boasts the largest following on Goodreads with more than 158,000 members, bringing to light the collaborative power of the Literary Lady everywhere. Literally everywhere, even on the train! The organisation ‘Books on the Underground’ hide a bunch of novels across London’s tube stations in the hope that you’ll read and re-hide them with a recommendation inside. There’s an extension ‘Books on the Rail’ in Melbourne, and Sydney (as always) is getting there.
What is curious is that in late October 2016, Watson joined forces with Books on the Underground to promote her November pick Mom and Me and Mom by Maya Angelou. That day, sales of the book increased to levels above what was seen when it first debuted at eighth on the New York Times Bestseller List in 2013. The power of book clubs is not only in recommendation, reflection and inspiration, but influencing the literary market too.
See, Women Who Read are more than just adorably Instagrammable introverts who curl up in daybeds next to stormy windows with layers of knitwear and green tea, you know. Sometimes we even splash out on a good Shiraz and who knows how many carloads of dessert-bearing women will be around after that.