Book Clubs

Reading is an important activity for many Americans. Today, thousands of men, women and children belong to groups to discuss the books they read. I'm Mary Tillotson. And I'm Steve Ember. A report about book clubs is our story today on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

No one is sure how many Americans belong to reading groups called book clubs. Yet publishers and bookstores report that more and more people throughout the United States are joining them.

Most of the clubs work the same way. Members read the same book at the same time. Then they meet to talk about the book.

Members may be friends or people who live near each other. Or, they may be people who work together. Some book clubs develop from other organizations. Religious and community groups often establish book clubs.

Some Americans belong to reading groups on the computer service known as the Internet. These groups include people around the world who communicate about books they read. These people send electronic mail instead of meeting to discuss books.

Book clubs may be for only women or only men. Or, they can be for husbands and wives together. Some are family groups where parents attend with their children. Children may belong to book clubs of their own.

Most reading groups study books by a number of writers. However, some groups read the work of a single writer, usually one that has been famous for awhile. William Shakespeare, James Joyce, Jane Austen, George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain are examples.

Other groups may be named for an important person in the work of the writer, like a Sherlock Holmes Club. Holmes is the great British crime investigator created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Members of these book clubs often are experts about their chosen reading material. For example, one member of a Holmes reading group can identify almost every person in every Sherlock Holmes story.

Some book clubs meet in homes. Other clubs meet in a religious center or work place. Some gather in a bookstore, a public information center or library. A few always have a meal at the same eating place.

Highly organized groups may enforce reading rules. They may say that members who have not read the required material may not be permitted to comment at meetings. National clubs often provide a list of required or suggested reading.

Some book clubs require their members to pay hundreds of dollars for a one-year club membership. These clubs usually have an expert leader, like a professor.

Other book clubs are not as organized. They have no official leader. Members exchange the responsibility of directing meetings. Books are chosen by voting on suggestions by members.

Oprah Winfrey is the star of a popular American television show. Six years ago, she started a reading group called Oprah's Book Club. Each month during autumn, winter and spring, Ms. Winfrey chose a book she liked. She announced her choice on the show. She asked people to read the book. Then, they wrote to the show with their thoughts and opinions.

Oprah's Book Club was successful because Ms. Winfrey would invite writers to her show to discuss their books. Her club greatly influenced what Americans read. For example, some libraries reported that several hundred people had to wait to borrow one of the books she suggested. Publishers also felt the effects of Ms. Winfrey's book club. They would often need to make thousands of extra copies of a book to satisfy public demand.

Earlier this year, Oprah Winfrey decided to drop the book club from her television show. However, computer users can still find her book choices on her Internet website. Also, people who write books continue to make appearances on her show.

In recent months, several new, national book clubs were formed. The newspaper U-S-A Today started its club in April. Every six weeks, the U-S-A Today Book Club chooses a new book. Members can discuss the books with writers and other people electronically.

One of the first books chosen was "Empire Falls" by Richard Russo. "Empire Falls" was chosen a short time after it won a Pulitzer Prize, America's highest writing award. Winning the Pulitzer is known to increase a book's sales.

At least four television shows also have formed book clubs. A-B-C Television's "Good Morning America" started a program called, "Read This." It invites members of existing book clubs to suggest things to read.

This is different from a new club organized by N-B-C Television's "Today Show." On that show, best-selling writers are asked to suggest a book. In the first program, writer John Grisham chose "The Emperor of Ocean Park" by Stephen Carter.

At first, there were two-hundred-forty-thousand copies of "The Emperor of Ocean Park" in publication. After the "Today Show" announcement, the number of copies in American bookstores rose to almost five-hundred-thousand.

On C-N-N television, financial reporter Lou Dobbs chooses books that he believes investors will enjoy. Many of the books he suggests deal with economics or financial issues. Another television show, "Live with Regis and Kelly," has a less serious book club. All books chosen there are said to be easy reading with no deep hidden messages. Club members say reading for them is meant to be fun and light.

Several cities in the United States, such as Chicago and Seattle, also have started book clubs. Public library officials in Washington, DC, hope their club will create a feeling of togetherness in the city, and help those people who can not read.

Smaller, local clubs may read works that already have been popular for centuries, like "The Odyssey" of Homer. They may read poetry or mystery stories or love stories. Or, they may read books about people, politics, or current events.

Book clubs are more than reading groups. They are social groups, too. Most of the book clubs have only women as members. The women often become good friends. They discuss their families and jobs, as well as the books they read. The meetings give members a chance to learn what other women are thinking. One club member says she thinks it is valuable to talk about what you read with good friends.

Other clubs help unmarried men and women meet each other. A Christian religious center in Cincinnati, Ohio organized one such club. Members have to be unmarried and more than forty years old. This group reads a lot of books about relationships between men and women. One was called "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus." John Gray, an expert on communication and relationships, wrote this book. It discusses differences in how men and women think and act.

Some reading clubs in the United States are for husbands and wives. One woman says this is a great idea for a book club. She says husbands and wives often talk to each other only about their children, or work, or money problems. "Talking about books," she says, "opens a whole new level of communication."

American children belong to reading clubs, too. They may be as young as four years old or as old as eighteen. Some children's clubs get help from the Great Book Foundation. This educational organization provides lists of books to read. It also trains people to lead discussions about the books.

Young children read stories like "The Emperor's New Clothes" by Hans Christian Andersen. Other popular books for young readers include "How the Elephant Became" by Ted Hughes. Older children might read works such as "Antigone" by Sophocles and "On the Limits of Government" by John Locke.

One woman has belonged to a book club in Washington, D.C. for more than twenty-nine years. She says some of the best books she has read are the ones she would NEVER read if she did not belong to a club. She says her reading group has opened her eyes to a wider and more interesting world.

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson and Jill Moss. Our producer was Caty Weaver. Our engineer was Maurice Williams. I'm Mary Tillotson. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.