Going (Book) Clubbing

Do you belong to a book club? They’ve been around a very long time, mostly under the radar but in the past 20 years or so, they’ve become really popular. They have also moved out of people’s homes and into local bookstores, I’ve noticed signs up for them in “my” Chapter’s store and in others. I think some of the libraries provide space for them, too. I’ve never belonged to one.

I know. That seems odd considering how much I read. With Goodreads, I’ve been a participant in online group reads so that’s kind of the same thing. The appeal of “real life” book clubs is the physical interaction, the coffee/tea/wine/treats aspect, the live reaction and discussion. Unless you’re meeting in an online real time chat room to talk about a book, the discussion loses it’s initiative (I think that’s the right word I was looking for) and it’s impact. Whether I could find a book club or join one at the bookstore or library  likely wouldn’t be difficult. The main drawback for me was that I don’t own a vehicle and traipsing around in the evenings by bus does not appeal in the least. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it.

I attended a book club meeting once, with a friend of mine on a late spring evening. I think there were about 8 or 10 women attending, most on the older side of middle age, all very well educated and most of them quite serious readers, I think. I don’t remember the book they were discussing and I do know I hadn’t read it. The club was also choosing the books for the next year, beginning in September (taking the summer off). My suggestion of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon made the cut for the first book of the new reading  year, a good summer read, it was deemed. I wonder if they read it and  if they ended up enjoying it.

This brings me to a very famous book “club” started some years ago by Oprah Winfrey. She is a reader herself and decided to recommend books to her fans, books that she enjoyed and made a “club” out of it. Everyone would read a book for a month or two. Then she’d have the author on her tv show and they could all talk about/watch the show about the book. Her recommendation would spike sales for that book immensely and generate a lot of interest in that author. She didn’t just pick books off the top seller lists either and that made it interesting. A little later, she started to focus on Classics. I think Oprah did quite a lot to promote literacy not just in children, not just in people who struggled to read, but in ordinary folks that just never took the time to read or appreciate the joy of a well written book.

I never participated in Oprah’s book club but did look at the books she recommended. Many of her choices were written by black writers and/or were about black women and their experiences. That would resonate with her and a lot of her audience and you want a book that you can relate to. I’m not black so sometimes I found it difficult to relate to a book’s message and some of the books she promoted were quite dark. Not all, though. But an Oprah sticker on a book at your bookstore will pretty much guarantee you a good book with an intriguing character or two in it.

The reason I’ve dug into all of this is this month’s newest Oprah book club, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. I’m not sure why but the book caught my eye. It’s about an African American couple, Celestial and Roy, who’s world comes crashing down when Roy is jailed for something he didn’t do, and what happens to them both individually and as a couple after that. I thought “Oooh, that sounds good”.  Then I realized I had read one of Ms. Jones’ books before and liked that one, too. It’s called Silver Sparrow and is the story of two families linked by a bigamist husband but told from the point of view of the daughters. (My review) Always a good sign if I’ve already “met” the author and liked one of their books.

It’s now on my wishlist, with the hope that I can get an ecopy from my library. I’ve got too many others on the go at the moment to try to fit that in as well and with Canada Reads  coming soon, that’s going to bump a few more books up the priority list. (looks ruefully at the increasing stack of paper books and magazines stacking up waiting to  be read and loved!)

You can browse through Oprah’s picks here and there’s a downloadable pdf file of them there as well. She’s chosen a good variety of books over the past 20 years including two of my all time favourites, Fall On Your Knees, by Canadian author Ann-Marie MacDonald and Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It’s a good list to peruse if you’re looking for something new.

Q&A with Tayari Jones

So. Do you belong to a book club? Is it “in real life” or online? Is it more about the social aspect than the books? I think once I retire I may look around for one, perhaps one that meets on a Sunday afternoon and near-ish where I live in case taxis are going to be involved.

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Oprah’s Contribution to Literacy (@Oprah)

Obviously, I love to read. This blog wouldn’t be in existence if I didn’t. I can’t imagine not having books in my life and I find it strange when someone says they don’t read unless they have a very good reason. There would be a book written on just about any topic in the world so it can’t be that there isn’t something that interests you. Books are too long? Read a magazine. It still counts as long as there are words, preferably more words than pictures.

I may think it strange but I don’t judge. Your thing isn’t my thing and if you don’t read, you’re probably into something that I’m not. But let’s just proceed on the premise that reading is a Good Thing.

I’ve mentioned before that the Harry Potter books got a lot of kids and even adults reading. Surely some people kept on reading other books after they finished HP and saw the movies. I should think that a whole new crop of readers was born with that series which makes me happy.

There’s another crop of readers with its seeds planted in pop culture. Ladies and Gentlemen, I bring you Oprah Winfrey. (I hear you groaning there in the back!) Oprah is a very powerful influence these days. I think she is to be much admired. She grew up poor and pulled herself up into the world, making a career in broadcasting and then broke out into fame with her talk show. I was never a habitual watcher but I did enjoy her show. She’s reached heady heights with a magazine, tv network, charities, acting, producing and much more. She is generous with her fans and her philanthropy has changed the lives of many.

Many years ago, while she was still doing her talk show, she started a book club. She recommended a book, urged her fans to read it and then had the author on the show a few weeks later to talk about the book. As social media grew, there could be discussions online about the book. She stopped the book club for awhile then brought it back by espousing American classics and is still promoting books and authors now. Many of her books support African American authors and stories because that’s what touches her, what she can relate to the best but the list of her books spans a diverse variety of authors and genres. There are even some Canadian authored books. (A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, one of my favourites) There are some really talented authors that would have been overlooked had she not shone the light on them.

I’ll admit that I didn’t really jump on the Oprah Book Club bandwagon, probably due to not being a regular follower of her tv show at the time or over the years. I have read a few of the books that are on her list-to-date though not because they were picked for her book club. Most of her picks were not stories that drew me in but there are some on her list of 76 to date that also happened to be a few of my favourites. In addition to the Ann-Marie MacDonald book already mentioned, two more that I loved are Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett and Tara Road by Maeve Binchy. The thing is, I was already a reader before the book club came to her as a Really Good Idea.

The point that I’m trying to make is that Oprah’s Book Club sparked a huge interest in reading among her fans. Her sticker on a book could make it a best seller, whether it was newly published or whether it was a classic from the 19th or early 20th Century (Dickens, Pearl S. Buck, Leo Tolstoy, John Steinbeck). Her recommendations would open up a new type of book for many that might not have thought about reading a classic, or a book that tackles a heavier subject.

Oprah loves to read and she picks the books that she enjoys. People can’t submit a book for consideration. She finds her books the way the rest of us do, word of mouth, friends and family, advertising, best seller lists, social media recommendations, and many other ways. She’s brought the written word to literally millions over the years. Even if her choices might not be mine all the time, I applaud her contribution to literacy and the enrichment of lives through the written word.

Oprah, if you’re reading this, (one can wish, right?) can I just suggest some wonderful Canadian authors? Miriam Toews, Frances Itani, Kathleen Winter, Richard Wagamese, Michael Ondaadje, Mordecai Richler, Timothy Findlay, Margaret Atwood. That’ll do for a start!

Check out Oprah’s book list to date if you want to read something new. On Twitter, #oprahsbookclub has book chat and her official Twitter is here.