Book clubs don’t read poetry

And they don’t read short stories. Or plays.

At least, they rarely do. I discovered this during my conversations with dozens of Minnesota clubs over the past few months. Club reading lists heavily favor novels, memoirs, biographies and historical nonfiction. The most popular genres by far are literary fiction and memoir.

When I remark on the absence of short stories and poetry, book club members often say they find it difficult to maintain a lively discussion about shorter works. Book clubs seem more comfortable discussing prose narratives with an extended storyline and developed characters.

The exclusion of poetry might also be a consequence of the prevalent notion that poetry is too erudite for the average reader, too obscure and inaccessible. Book club reading lists may reflect the fact that the wider reading population seldom reads poetry anymore.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2004 study of literary reading in the U.S., fiction was the most popular type of literature among adults. While 45 percent of adults had read fiction in the past year, only 12 percent had read poetry. A meager 4 percent reported having read a play.

The NEA’s 2008 study found that the number of American adults reading literature had increased for the first time since 1982. Fiction accounted for all the growth. Poetry and drama readership actually declined, reaching their lowest point in at least 16 years.

The dearth of reading group guides for plays and collections of poetry and short stories might also factor into book clubs’ reluctance to tackle these genres. ReadingGroupGuides.com has only a small offering of short story guides and even fewer guides for poetry collections and plays. Another popular site, BookBrowse.com, has guides for collections of short stories and essays, but none for poetry or plays.

One site that is helpful for book clubs that want to read more poetry is Poets.org. It gives advice on how to approach poems, lists recommended reading, and offers lots of ways to incorporate poetry into a book club’s routine.

A quick look at the data base of more than 200 public and private book clubs registered with MinnPost shows that a few do read poetry, short stories or plays. If your club does, what have you read and enjoyed? 

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Mary M McDermid on 09/28/2009 - 04:10 pm.

    We read poetry, short stories, plays and even essays!

    Poetry:
    “The Pearl is a Hardened Sinner” Stanely Kiesel
    “Picnic, Lighting” Billy Collins
    Rita Dove selected poems
    “Rounding Human Corners” Linda Hogan

    Short Stories:
    “Dancing After Hours” Andrea Dubus
    “Interpreter of Maladies” Lahiri, Jhumpa
    “Complete Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor”
    “People and Other Aggravations” Judith Viorst
    “Roof Walker” Power, Susan

    Plays:
    “The Children’s Hour

    Plays:
    “The Children’s HOur: Lillian Hellman

  2. Submitted by Diana Raabe on 10/03/2009 - 11:44 am.

    I don’t think it’s too “erudite” for either of my book clubs. Rather, it is too subjective. It would take more than one meeting to evaluate so many interpretations.

    Having said that, poetry is sometimes brought up in ancillary book club discussions between members who read, or have read, poetry. For instance, Robert Bly’s anti-war publication, The Insanity of Empire, was a favorite during the Bush years.

    I imagine that Keats will come up next month with the movie, Bright Star, just having been released.

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