discussions are as old as books themselves,
and certainly became more frequent with the
invention of the printing press around 1455.
The literary salons of Paris helped shape
the cultural scene of the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Encyclopedia Americana defined
them as "fashionable assemblage(s), generally
of literary, artistic, and political figures,
held regularly in a private home. " The
hostesses were often authors in their own
right, like Mlle. de Scudéry (1607-1701),
Mme. Françoise Scarron (1635-1719)
, and Mme. de Staël (1766-1817). Coffee
houses were a humbler, but no less vital,
forum. "Wherever men gathered to discuss
the ideas circulated in print," wrote
Anthony J. LaVopa ("The Birth of Public
Opinion," in Wilson Quarterly,
Winter 1991), "a network of 'enlightened'
communities peopled by only a few thousand
souls, invented public opinion as a way of
talking about and validating itself."
Barzun ("Three Men and a Book,"
in American Scholar, Summer
2001) wrote that "in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, small groups of people
clubbed together to buy books because they
were expensive." In 1754, frugal readers
founded the New York Society Library and,
soon afterward, there arose the Boston Library
Society (both institutions still thrive today).
to Brad Hooper ("The Mother of All Book
Clubs," Booklist, Sept. 15,
2001) perhaps the earliest community book discussion
club like those meeting in today's living rooms
was founded in 1877, by the ladies in the small
Corn-Belt town of Mattoon, Illinois (the club
still meets). Beaufort, SC was not far behind:
Mary Elizabeth Waterhouse founded the Clover
literary society in 1891. The thirty members
of the Club founded a circulating library in
1902 (the first since Union troops confiscated
the collection of the Beaufort Library Society
in 1861). The Clover Club began its fund-raising
project for a permanent library building in
1911, and when the Beaufort Township Library
was built seven years later, the Clover Club
donated a nucleus of 2000 books. Clover Club
members are still active supporters of the County
Clifford Larson told of Boston's Saturday Evening
Girl's Club (1899) in "The Saturday Evening
Girls Progressive Era Library Club and the Intellectual
Life of Working Class and Immigrant Girls of
the Working Class and Immigrant Girls in Turn-of-the-Century
(Library Quarterly, April 2001):
"While most clubs for girls generally centered
on sewing, cooking, and other domestic duties,
some clubs began to emerge that addressed the
intellectual needs of girls and young women,"
in this case "poor, young Jewish and Italian
working women and girls living in the North
End of Boston."
F. Michael Perko ("Alternative Forms of
Education," in the Encyclopedia
of Social History) saw literary clubs
as an important form of self-education. From
1880 to 1900, three times as many books were
being published in the United States than before
the Civil War, and in the 1870s and 1880s a
growing number of books were being sold by subscription.
The Literary Guild (1921), the Book-of-the-Month
Club (1926), and the mass-marketing of publisher
Nelson Doubleday (1889-1949) made finding a
good book even easier, and whetted the public's
appetite for discussion groups.
Great Books Foundation was established in 1947,
with more than 43,000 participants in 300 cities
within its first year. Its heyday was the 1950s
and 1960, after which book study clubs in schools,
churches and communities took the lead. Around
1993, Perko noted that membership in the clubs
"remains primarily female." Some clubs
focus on specific genres, like
mysteries and romance novels. The Internet has
taken the discussions out into Cyberspace and
into a truly global community (see "Internet
Site of the Week," below). Web sites like
Amazon.com even post book reviews written by
customers from their home computers.
discussion of book clubs is complete without
talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, whose "Oprah
Book Club" (begun in 1996) made readers
of millions of daytime television viewers. Quoted
by Mary Ann Grossmann in "Why Did Oprah
End Book Club" (St. Paul
[Minn.] Pioneer Press , April
11, 2002), Oprah gave her reason for ending
her first "version" of the Club in
2002: "It has become harder and harder
to find books on a monthly basis that I feel
absolutely compelled to share." Oprah soon
had a change of heart, however, and started
a new Book Club at http://www.oprah.com/.
"The book club is back and I am on a mission,"
said Oprah on the Web site. "My mission
is to make this the biggest book club in the
world and get people reading again. Not just
reading, but reading great books!"
many books clubs are there now in Beaufort County?
That is a question the Beaufort County Public
Library is working to answer. The collections
at our five locations already provide books
for club members, and the Friends of the Library
in Beaufort and on Hilton Head Island sponsor
annual series of book talks for the reading
public ("Books Sandwiched In" and
"Book Break," respectively). The Library's
recent "One County, One Book" program
(March-May 2003) started in March had readers
throughout Beaufort County reading Pat Conroy's
The Water Is Wide and attending
programs and discussion groups.
its "Book Club Corner" program, the
Library will be in touch with the many area
book clubs, to make it easier than ever to read
and share the titles on the reading lists.