As a book nerd and goody two-shoes, I sometimes wonder what it would be like if The Drinking Club were a…different kind of reading group. It should come as no shock that book clubs run the gamut from studious to drunk and disorderly. On those nights when sleep is a distant memory and I’ve watched four episodes of Madam Secretary, I wonder: how would The Drinking Club dynamic change if we pulled reading guides, and not canned wine, out of our bags? The written word is a topic guaranteed to transform this caterpillar into a conversational butterfly, so I cherish (nay, actively seek) any conversation, about any book. Seriously. We wouldn’t be here if this weren’t true.
Then the New York Times published an article titled “Book Clubs Get Especially Clubby,” an exploration of the varied and niche book clubs that challenge what I and others have dubbed the Pinot Grigio model (in my readings, it’s Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris, and only these, that are the go-to libation of these lowly gatherings). We have political junkies, acclaimed authors, artists, and everyone in between creating groups that mimic Lit 101. They invite authors to speak to them. Authors who were formerly presidents, for crying out loud. This is not your mother’s book club. Or The Drinking Club, for that matter.
So I needed to know: are these clubs the norm? Or do many across the country resemble us?
The answer is more complicated. For centuries, book clubs have existed, and there has been a clear delineation between those looking for an elevated cultural experience, and those looking to trade their literary thoughts alongside the hot goss, especially if it’s over a well crafted cheese board.
Most attribute the origins of the modern book club to 18th century English salons. Women of means hosted their friends in their homes to hear respected men speak on a variety of topics. They didn’t learn about these subjects during their formal education, because they weren’t allowed to have one. Le sigh.
In the 1920s, groups like the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild expanded the book club population from high-brow intellectuals to a larger public who wanted to engage with the best literary works and the social movements of the time. These national groups and the tastemakers who ran them set the agenda, promoting the classic canonical texts (those ones you were supposed to read in college) and titles of similar literary quality to further cultural engagement. The snobbery was strong with these ones.
While the Minkuses of the world would like us to believe cultural education should be the only motivator for clubs, other research indicates that the OG meetings were born out of an equal desire to socialize and share their passion for reading. Clubs developed alongside the rise of libraries as gathering spaces in 18th century England. Readers realized they could expand their personal libraries by joining forces, sharing their books, and pooling resources to buy new ones. These book clubs often met over monthly dinners, and instituted some pretty strange rules. One example: a club member owed the group a bottle of wine if they revealed their vote for or against new member…or let a dog loose inside the meeting place.
This all changed in the US with the rise of access to college education after World War II. As more people enrolled, the need for extracurriculars to expand their knowledge was replaced with keggers. There’s also the fact that they way we’re currently taught to consume literature in school kills any desire to read for pleasure. It wasn’t until HRH and 2020 presidential candidate Oprah Winfrey launched Oprah’s Book Club and got housewives across America reading classics and debuts.
And what about today? Clubs seemed to be as polarizing as they were 200 years ago. We have those who prefer to consume the written word within social parameters that would make a straitjacket look cozy, and others who show up with a bottle of Pinot Gris and a book that still cracks when you open it. And now, clubs have the power to make or break relationships. It’s a battle of the Controllers and the Acquiesers.
Personally, I don’t need that kind of stress in my life. And that’s why, after all this research, I believe The Drinking Club is exactly the way it should be. Sure, only two of us show up having read the book. But being around people who appreciate the power of a great story, whether it comes from a paperback or the Thursday 3pm meeting, is infinitely better than any analysis of The Overstory I could find in a “serious” club. Yahdon Israel, founder of the Literaryswag, put it best when describing the growing diversity and expansion of thought in today’s book clubs: “The people at them are gonna be your collaborators, your co-conspirators, the people you start businesses and families with.”