It began as a joke. I resented my husband’s book club and its ability to work through doorstoppers like Matterhorn (597 pages) with surprising alacrity, parsing narrative threads while making wild-game chili. Attempting to fashion a rival club, I found my girlfriends fell into two camps: the book-club-fatigued and the time-crunched. Whereas my mom can juggle two book clubs and seven novels on her Kindle, I can barely get through the ingredients list on my jar of peanut butter, with work, a baby and a Twitter feed all clamouring for my attention. And so I convened the Ladies Short-Form Media Auxiliary. We would drink buttery whites, eat cake and discuss magazine articles, YouTube clips and clever tweets. We’d all be on the same page, but that page wouldn’t be in a book.
Book clubs have seen their popularity rise and taper over the past decade. In the early part of the 20th century they enabled women, relegated to the home and often denied formal education, the chance to broaden their minds. Instead of reading the same book, women would read whatever they could get their hands on and then deliver detailed reports to their literature groups, writes Elizabeth Long in Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life.
If the role of the book club as a tool for female empowerment and education has waned over the century, its promise as a place for spirited discussion and intellectual engagement hasn’t, especially as women’s time has grown increasingly fractured. “If you don’t have a lot of leisure time, don’t have time to think interesting thoughts and talk about interesting things with people, then you really miss that,” says Long.
It’s ironic, then, that as women have grown increasingly busy, the book club has become a tyrannical time suck. Oprah’s picks regularly clock in at around 500 pages and come with a torrent of supplemental online materials and discussion topics. “I was at the MLA [Modern Language Association] conference and there was a panel about the ‘Summer of Faulkner.’ People were most impressed with all the resources Oprah had gathered online,” says Cecilia Konchar Farr, the author of Reading Oprah: How Oprah’s Book Club Changed the Way America Reads.
The scholarly offerings are great. It’s just that they have also created a book club culture that can demand huge amounts of mental energy. Can people get together to discuss other art forms? Long and Konchar Farr have come across poetry and play-reading groups in their research, but why stop at the printed page?
Last October, Colleen Murphy, a London-based DJ and musician, began Classic Album Sundays, a record listening club, at a pub. Members show up to listen, silently, to an entire album, then drink pints and talk about it. “The difference between an album club and a book club,” says Murphy, “is that it only takes an hour to listen to an album.”
These days we come by our culture in bits and pieces, watching videos alone and listening to MP3s through our headphones. Perhaps because it’s so refreshingly communal, Classic Album Sundays has struck a chord. “A lot of people are starting ones around the country, which I’m really excited about,” says Murphy.
At my short-form media club we talked about the commercial for Ontario’s all-day kindergarten my friend Lindsay sent around (I was impressed by the production values). Then Maya showed us YouTube videos of Lisa Lampanelli, a charmingly raunchy comedian the rest of us had somehow never heard of. Julie wasn’t able to watch the clip of Truman Capote reading from Breakfast at Tiffany’s I’d sent around earlier in the week, so I pulled that up, and we discussed how Capote’s voice is equal parts David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell.
Though less rigorous than Faulkner with Oprah’s study aids, our discussion was surprisingly free-flowing and interdisciplinary. From the raunchy comedian, we meandered over to Sarah Palin and Tina Fey and Christopher Hitchens. By the end of the evening my laptop was a mess of open tabs and Google searches. Just another night of hanging out with the girls, except with a little more intellectual heft and audiovisual flair.