On any day of the week, all across the United States, men and women (well, mostly women) meet in homes, libraries, Y's, churches-any where with lots of chairs-to talk about books. Whether or not they realize it (and let's face it: they've probably never really thought about it) these groups are playing a vital role in our society. You might say that book clubs are making the world safe for democracy.
Clearly, that sounds a bit dramatic, overblown. And perhaps it is an exaggeration...but only a by little. Book clubs are a lot more significant than just a group of individuals socializing, eating, and chatting about novels. They have become a sociological-and political-phenomenon. To understand why that is, we need to go back to the middle years of the 20th century.
In 1995 Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam published an essay (which later became book) called "Bowling Alone." In it he traced the decline of American civic life, a trend he saw take place over the past 40-so years, starting in the 1950's. Putnam based his thesis on decreased voter turn out, lower public meeting attendance, fewer people serving on committees or working for political parties.
He also observed a fraying around the edges of our social fabric, finding, for instance, a decline in bowling leagues-despite the fact that the number of bowlers had actually increased! Oddly, it turns out, people were bowling alone.
Where is everyone? According to Putnam, we're at home-and staying there. First, he observed, we have isolated ourselves in far-flung suburbs, away from town centers, the place where traditionally people always gathered. Second, we have become distracted by technology: spending evenings in front of our TV sets and now computers. Finally, with the majority of women in the workforce, we have had less time and energy for civic involvement.
The consequences mean that fewer of us are engaged in communal life. And consequences matter, Putnam believes. This is especially true for a country whose form of government-democracy-depends on active citizen participation. If we lose the habit of engagement, we will lose the know-how-the knowledge of give and take, of civil discourse, and of working together to achieve common aims. We won't even know what common goals we should work toward.
Putnam has painted a dire picture.
But perhaps-and happily-things have altered since Putnam first began his study. Since then has sprouted an enormous, widespread book club movement. And it is a movement, make no mistake! No one knows for certain, but the number of people involved in book clubs has been estimated at anywhere from 10-25 million...a number that continues to grow! (Just ask publishers-they feel the affects!)
So how has this happened? Where-and why-did this movement develop? The answer that comes to mind first is Oprah Winfrey. Bless her! In 1996 Winfrey launched the Oprah Book Club segment on her television show-and since then has helped trigger an immense popularity in reading and discussing books.
Yet the movement's endurance and burgeoning growth cannot be laid exclusively at Oprah's feet. After all, no one can get us to engage so thoroughly in something if it has no deep-seated appeal. Not even Oprah! A public movement this massive must exist because it touches something deep within our national consciousness.
I suggest it has to do with our own yearning-a hankering for a richer, deeper communal life. Talking to friends about sports, the kids, the job, or our latest bargain at the mall can take us only so far-in the end, we want more substance in our discourse.
Books give us more, especially when we TALK about them. Book discussions spur us to ponder, out loud, our connection to the greater world. We ask ourselves and each other: what makes a better life, what are our dreams and expectations, what kind of world do we wish to live in...with what kind of people? All these ideas are the things book clubs talk about.
And then there's the way in which books broaden our perspective, enabling us to reach out across time and space to understand other people in other cultures. Again, we explore these issues with each other, exchanging views and changing minds.
It seems to me book clubs are helping to reverse the trend that so worried Putnam. Because of book clubs, we're re-entering communal life, we're talking about substantive issues, we're engaging with ideas-and with one another.
Not to be too facile about it-but book clubs just might be saving the world!