I’ve never actually belonged to a book club in the traditional sense. Yes, I do belong to some great ones like the Rave Reviews Book Club (#RRBC), the Fantasy and Science Fiction Network (#FSFNet), and eNovel Authors At Work (#eNovAaW), but these are online book clubs. I’m not saying this to belittle them (indeed, some of my online friends are closer to me than most family), just to point out that we can’t hang out in person for an evening of drinking, gossiping, and generally having a good time.

Cause this, it turns out, is what book clubs have traditionally been about. Depending on the percentage of the group that has actually read the book, it may be discussed, or it may not. For centuries, the book has been the excuse, not necessarily the point.

The Early Days

Literary party| From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

The precursor to book clubs were parties where playwrights like Moliere read aloud their works. Image via Atlas Obscura

As Atlas Obscura explains, book clubs started in 18th-century England, when books were scarce and expensive. Book clubs were organized to help members gain access to reading material and to provide a forum for discussion of books the club held. But they were also about gossip and drinking. In most cases, food and alcohol in copious quantities, accompanied by a considerable element of boisterous good humor, played an important part in the life of the book clubs.

In 18th-century England, book culture was blooming as ever more volumes were printed. As more books appeared, people invented new ways of accessing them. Libraries began to open, many of which were commercial circulating libraries that required a fee to join. By the 1740s, these libraries had become fixtures, even though their exact number is debatable: some put it as low as two hundred, others up to a thousand.

These libraries weren’t just places to find books, but social institutions as well. One famous library also had a billiard room, a public exhibition room, and a music library. They were not the hushed environments that we now associated with libraries, but controversial, lively spaces where people of different social classes could gain access to books and even offer women a place to congregate outside the home.

Book Clubs

A circulating library | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

A circulating library in 1818. Image via Atlas Obscura

Book clubs were part of this literary culture. In book clubs today, members might buy their own copy of a book, but in the 18th century, part of the point of the clubs was to pool resources in order to buy more books. Belonging to a book club meant having a larger personal library than you might otherwise have access to—you just had to share. Members got together to talk about books, but they often met in inns, public houses or coffeehouses, and the clubs clearly offered more than merely access to texts, as even readers with substantial book collections joined them.

In fact, in some cases, the social side may have been the primary attraction, offering perks like monthly dinners. One club, for instance, had 22 members (including Branwell Brontë, the sole brother of the literary siblings) and met for monthly dinners. Its rules included fines for swearing, for being drunk ‘so that a member be offensive to the company,’ and for unseemly scrambling for books to borrow.” Another society, founded in 1742, also featured regular dinners: Article XV of the Regulations emphasizes in detail the monthly dinners, specifying—with elaborate exceptions—the Tuesday before the full moon. A member who missed the dinner had to pay a shilling. For other misdemeanors, such as letting a dog into the club room or revealing their vote for or against a potential new member, members had to contribute a bottle of wine.

The Country-Book Club

The Country Club | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Title page illustration from 1788 edition of “The Country Book-Club,” by Charles Shillito. Image via Atlas Obscura

The reputation of these clubs was such that, in 1788, Charles Shillito wrote a satirical poem depicting “The Country-Book Club” where members gathered to “taste the sweets of lit’rature—and wine.” Shillito took a dim view of the country doctor, squire, and vicar who gathered to drink and gossip at a meeting “that leaves no vacant time to think, or read.” The meeting of the fictional club gets more and more rowdy, until finally:

Thus, meeting to dispute, to fight, to plead,
To smoke, to drink—do anything but read—
The club—with stagg’ring steps, yet light of heart,
Their taste for learning shown, and punch—depart.

So, are these meetings meant for the discussion of literature, or are they social events? This, apparently, is a distinction as old as book clubs themselves.

Read the full post at Sarah Laskow’s post on Atlas Obscura.