Part seven of an eight-part series
Audra Otto loves reading books, talking to writers, visiting book clubs, digging up photos, and hanging around the Minnesota Historical Society. Holder of literary degrees from the University of St. Thomas and the National University of Ireland, she’s been a major player helping MinnPost get the Book Club Club off the ground. Letters from Audra talks about the role that book clubs have played in the lives of Minnesotans from 1880 to today.
Although the book titles and club procedures may be vastly different, modern book clubs do share some similarities with their predecessors. Reading groups still center on books – although today the focus is book discussion, rather than educational instruction.
A second continuity between book groups past and present is their homogeneity. Social distinction is readily apparent in both present-day and historic reading groups, most obviously in the case of the racial divide separating black and white women’s reading groups. In the past, as now, the vast majority of book club members belong to the white middle classes. Hierarchical relations among groups have also long existed along class lines, in part because reading groups tend to draw members from preconstituted informal social networks or through class-specific institutions such as country clubs or community centers.
In addition, the same supportive and empowering environment that reading societies provided for women in the past exists today. Modern book clubbers would surely recognize the kinship among members of historic reading groups, the bonds formed and cemented over years of meetings, social events, group dinners and excursions. Like reading groups of the past, modern book clubs often take group trips to visit art galleries and attend plays and operas. They’ve added to that list going to the movies to see film versions of books.
Social rituals and traditions are a central part of club life, and most reading groups hold special meetings during the year simply to celebrate their fellowship. Historic reading groups also held social events throughout the year, including house parties, picnics, potlucks, New Year’s parties and “general frolics.” As they are today, these events were clearly an important facet of the book-club experience, providing relaxation and enjoyment, and building camaraderie.
Thursday: The new woman.