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Letters from Audra: Reading material

In addition to making changes in levels of organization and formality, literary clubs have undergone radical changes in reading choices over the last century.

Part five 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. In Letters from Audra she talks about the role that book clubs have played in the lives of Minnesotans from 1880 to today.

In addition to making changes in levels of organization and formality, literary clubs have undergone radical changes in reading choices over the last century.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the majority of book group programs centered on literature, world history, American history and the fine arts. Reading circles’ basic literary curriculum centered on the classics of imaginative literature, and their canon was overwhelmingly Anglophile, favoring authors such as Robert and Elizabeth Browning, the  Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, John Stuart Mill, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and, of course, Shakespeare.

World, American and Minnesota history were also common subjects of study. The Lyndale Reading Circle, for example, studied dozens of world cultures, canals around the world, U.S. national parks, Minnesota history and geography, and the Mississippi River. Other Minnesota reading circles covered subjects ranging from horticulture and agriculture to the works of Raphael to famous women to current developments in science to political events.

In agreement with Thomas Jefferson’s 1818 lament that novels were “a great obstacle to good education,” some clubs banned novels altogether, permitting only genres such as poetry, essays, biography, drama, history, current events and travel. Often, discussion of a book’s aesthetic qualities was not even allowed at meetings. To these clubs, novels were a form of amusement and did not contribute substantively to the intellect or strengthen analytical faculties. Early reading clubs were devoted to improvement of understanding, meditation and serious thought, and created programs of study that would reflect this mission to the outside world.

The book clubs of today are much less concerned with public opinion of their reading material. Their members tend to read fiction novels, notably popular fiction. Modern book clubs generally prefer plot-driven novels that tend to highlight adversity overcome by a main character with whom the reader can easily identify.

This development is often seen as the legacy of Oprah’s Book Club, which began in 1996 and forever changed the face of group reading in America. As Suzanne Freeman stated in her article, “End of Discussion: Why I’m Leaving My Book Group,” what Oprah Winfrey offered, with the titles she selected and the tone she set, “was not self-improvement but solace. This would be a club for the weary, the wounded, and the overworked. It would be a balm for busy lives.”

Tuesday: Social mission