Children’s book clubs have been in the news lately. In July, ABC Online featured a number of Year 6 students who had formed their own clubs. The kids love their reading groups and the story describes how the groups form the basis of lasting relationships while supporting the children to read more.
For parents and teachers keen to see kids set aside their mobile devices to explore the pleasures of literature, this is a welcome development. Of course, the story ignores the long history of book clubs; one that demonstrates how reading groups have been encouraged by institutions to enhance education and promote social development, well-being and change.
Interestingly the children’s description of the benefits they get from their clubs, accords with what we know of adult groups. People enjoy book clubs because they provide community. Because they encourage reading of books that individuals might not otherwise choose to read. And because they provide a safe space in which to discuss often difficult or contentious issues.
Book clubs have been around a long time. They have a fascinating history that reminds us that reading has always been a social activity.
Harvey Daniels, for example, traces the history of book clubs and literature circles in North America to 1634. That was when Anne Hutchison, a Puritan, sailed from England to Boston. During the voyage, she gathered a group of women each week to discuss the Sunday sermon. She continued this practice on her arrival in Massachusetts. Until, that is, Hutchison ran foul of authorities for her radical theological views.
Tracing the history of reading groups is difficult. It is only in the 18th century that we begin to get records of their activities. As Charles Shillito’s The Country Book Club: A Poem (1788) demonstrates, book clubs were not only commonplace in English literary culture by the end of the 18th century, they were also popular enough to become the targets of satire.
Yet, putting aside the kind of lampooning that book clubs attracted, in the 18th and 19th centuries, as sociologist Elizabeth Long notes, reading groups were often tools in social reform movements, like the anti-slavery campaigns and the movement for the advancement of women.
For more than 200 years, reading groups have served as forums for the sharing of literature and ideas. They gave colonial settlers opportunities to keep abreast of contemporary news, fiction and intellectual fashions.
They were promoted as tools to improve popular literacy. And, in the 2oth century, they also became important allies of the publishing industry with the advent of things like the Book of the Month Club and, more recently, Oprah’s Book Club. Amongst other things, book clubs have been valuable tools in the development of so-called middlebrow culture.
In a democratic literary culture, book clubs serve a range of functions. There is still much to learn about these groups, their popularity, their uses and benefits. Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that the children’s book clubs the ABC reported on recently are not isolated ones and we see more people of all ages enjoying the pleasures of book groups.
Dr Robert Clarke is a Senior Lecturer and Acting Head of Discipline for English Studies in the School of Humanities, and Co-Director of the Centre for Colonialism and its Aftermath (CAIA), University of Tasmania.
This piece originally appeared on the Peter Underwood Centre for Educational Attainment site.