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Book clubs: Women keep the culture of communal reading alive

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Women and book clubs go together. In the U.S. close to 80% of all participants in book clubs are women. 

This set WSHU’s Book Critic Joan Baum on a search to learn more.  Why do so many women participate in book clubs and what types of clubs work and which don’t?  She sat down with Eve Karlin to find out. Karlin is an author and the owner of the BookHampton book store in East Hampton. She also runs a book club. Here is their conversation.

Joan Baum: Eve, welcome.

Eve Karlin: Thank you, Joan.

Joan Baum: What was your impetus performing or leading a book club?

Eve Karlin: Well, I happen to be a bookseller at BookHampton and I was invited to lead the book club. So basically, I would say I'm the organizer. I generally choose the book. But I'm open to any member of the club choosing the book. And I just do that kind of back office stuff, dates, times and reminders.

Joan Baum: When did you start the book club?

Eve Karlin: Three years ago?

Joan Baum: Was it all women?

Eve Karlin: We have had the occasional man, but I would say that it's primarily women. Yes.

Joan Baum: And just out of curiosity, women who expect to be fed, or wined and dined?

Eve Karlin: Well, I think that our model is slightly different because we are associated with a bookstore and we are in a really busy summer community. So during the season, we do meet at the bookstore, but we do kind of wine a little bit not necessarily dine. Offseason we like to dine and W-I-N-E wine.

Joan Baum: Okay. Well, until the 19th century, late 19th century, women who were interested in literary, scientific and artistic achievements were excluded not only from universities, but from intellectual gatherings, with the exception being a prominent upper-class muse, or patron, usually in Europe, who headed up a group. And in this country, probably we can trace the book club way back to Anne Hutchinson. Yes, she of the Hutchinson Parkway, who is a Puritan religious reformer, who was said to be the first woman to start a talk group for women in Massachusetts Bay. Her group centered on the Bible. But as book clubs became fashionable and women got together to talk about the Bible, they extended it. Then Shakespeare came in and then the publications of the day. So it wasn't until maybe 18, the late 1800s that women journalists who were barred by the New York Press Club from attending an event, one particular event, honoring Charles Dickens, they decided to form their own professional women's club, the first in the country. And then from there, everything followed, including Oprah. But why now, with the growth of book club members, is it so overwhelmingly women? We may not have an answer, but —

Eve Karlin: Yeah, I don't want to give a stereotype or a stereotypical answer. But it does seem to be that women enjoy the discussion process of a book or the setting of a book club more than men do. Overwhelmingly, I mean, certainly there was Oprah. And then Reese Witherspoon's book club is very, very popular. Jenna Bush, TikToks now have really affected the choice.

Joan Baum: The marketing and also sales.

Eve Karlin: Right. Yeah, for sure. And also discussions prompted discussions by all ages, but I would tend to think a little bit more women than men. I read somewhere that, you know, maybe men won't ask for directions or something like that. Women are more verbal and so one doesn't want to pigeonhole categories. And every rule is made to be broken. But in this case, it does seem to be that women express more interest in discussing what they've read.

Joan Baum: There's a club, it's national called the Romeos Standing for Retired Older Men Eating Out. The Romeos who got together, totally without women, were instructed never to discuss politics or grandchildren. And what they did discuss, I don't know I've never belonged to the Romeos. But I do know of a couple of guys who started book clubs like the Romeos. And within the first session, they were at each other with an anger that soon turned political. Whatever the book was, usually nonfiction, they wound up expressing some kind of hostility. So I'm very interested in your experience over the last three years as a leader in the kinds of responses you get and what you do, to set an atmosphere of community.

Eve Karlin: Well, first of all, also unfortunate that the Romeos had such strong opinions. I've been really, really fortunate with the women who joined our book club. We're there because we love literature and want to discuss a book. And I think that's what brought us all to that common place. And it works really well, because that's what we do. We like to discuss the book. Sure, maybe other things factor into the conversation. But I have heard over and over again, that the reason why our book club is a success is because we stick to the book to the literature. And they're a very open-minded group of women. So we learn.

Joan Baum: Different ages or diversity in whatever you think that word stands for.

Eve Karlin: Right. There are different ages, I'd say the core group is probably older women simply because women who are retired have more time, you know, or women who are not young mothers or something like that have more time. Though young mothers do like to get away from their kids on certain nights and have kind of an intellectually stimulating conversation. So that works, too.

Joan Baum: And how does the fact that women constitute the group? How does that affect the choice of a book? And I'm thinking of fiction, as opposed to nonfiction contemporary as opposed to classical or however, right divisions fall out?

Eve Karlin: Well, in our group, we generally like to read things that are fresh and just coming out, because the group is composed of such good readers, many people have read lots of classics. That said, you know, even as a bookseller one does notice that women tend to read more fiction, perhaps more family stories or stories that are a well-kept secret, something like that. And those books have been very successful. But for our group, we like to shake it up. So we read memoirs, we read historical fiction, we read fiction. Our next book will be poetry.

Joan Baum: Well you certainly included the two top-selling genres, historical fiction, of which you are an author, and memoirs. Are you aware of any women in your group, whom you said, are good readers, who are writers also, and bring that to the table?

Eve Karlin: Absolutely. And we have at least two women who are writers. One is a New York Times Best Selling writer. And she brings so much, they both do. It's interesting, because when discussing a book, one can discuss structure and one could discuss plot. We are privileged to have both.

Joan Baum: So we're going to conclude I hope, on a positive note. That the group of women, largely the book club people is going to grow. And are there any changes that you have made over your three-year period? Or are there changes you're thinking of making?

Eve Karlin: The group has evolved. But as far as changes, certainly we've gone through the whole zoom thing and the in-person thing I think the in-person works a lot better. Now we're going to continue. We're going to forge on as always inviting new people to join us and new voices to come join the group.

Joan Baum: Thank you, Eve Karlan. I wish you best with your book Track 61.

Eve Karlin: Thank you, Joan.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.