The rise of the reading group

12 June 2008

I've often pondered the phenomenon of the rise of the reading group. I'm a member of one myself and look forward to my monthly opportunity to mouth off over a large glass of wine hugely.

We all know about the impact of Richard and Judy's Book Club and 'the Oprah Effect'. And, as someone who presents books to retailers for a living, I often resort to bleating, as I brandish our latest Next Big Thing: 'It's perfect for reading groups! It's got issues in it!' But despite all this I still can't claim to understand exactly why numbers of book groups have exploded so much over the last few years: there are now an estimated 20 million book club members in the USA, a number which has doubled in size in the last eight years.

So I was relieved when Michelle Harrison from the Henley Centre spoke at the Booksellers Association conference last month. Their researchers have identified a sharp cultural shift away from ‘me time’ towards ‘we time.’ In an age where we live further away from our families, work longer hours, and have less old-fashioned human contact than ever before, people are redressing the balance by seeking out more collective experiences. If you've been to see Sex and the City over the last couple of weeks you'll know what I mean - it's incredible to hear 500 women gasp simultaneously at the sight of Carrie's made-to-measure wardrobe. (I know, I know - but it is truly beautiful.) 

It's also the case that in a long-tail society that's overwhelmed with choices we all crave more guidance about what to read. Being in a group that makes decisions together or works through the classics provides just that. 

A brilliant initiative in Liverpool called Get into Reading runs reading groups which are explicitly designed to be therapeutic: they boost the self-esteem of their members, reduce social isolation, and, as Blake Morrison wrote in the Guardian earlier this year, are 'an attempt to see whether reading can alleviate pain or mental distress.'

So when social trends are combined with the feel-good factor of reading and the age-old satisfaction of debate, it's really not such a surprise that book groups are booming. Meanwhile, I'm going to screw up my courage and admit that I didn't like Little Women at my next meeting. Pray for me: I may not emerge alive.

Do you participate in a book club? Let us know what you think!