Reading Communities From Salons to Cyperspace

Edited by DeNel Rehberg Sedo. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. xiii, 218 pp. $85.00. ISBN 978-0-230-29988-7.

This collection contains research-based and theoretical essays on historical and current reading group movements. Authors are from a variety of social science and humanities disciplines including English, Literature, Writing, Publishing Studies, Sociology, Communication, and Worktown Studies. The international scope of the essays highlights the commonalities of communal reading experiences for people of different nations and time periods. The U.K. is represented by half of the collection’s authors, while the other authors are from the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Research methodologies encompass historical research, surveys, interviews, participant observation, and qualitative content analysis of print and internet resources.

The time periods covered by the essays range from the 1700s through the present, and concern selected countries in Europe, North America, Africa, and Oceania. The editor of the collection identifies “three distinct links” of community, the role of education, and the “rich repertoire of research methods available to book historians” as commonalities among the essays (2). I would add that the contexts treated here are limited to shared reading practices in European-influenced, English-speaking countries. A common theme across many of the essays is the idea that shared reading is a social experience rooted in community, class, and gender contexts.

In an historical introduction, the editor notes that reading out loud as a form of entertainment became popular in the Middle Ages. By the 1700s, there were book and reading clubs, societies, and group-run lending and circulating libraries. Until the 1800s, and in the U.S. until after the Civil War, these social reading groups were predominately male. Formal study groups gave way to informal groups of acquaintances by the 1960s, and by the 1990s reading promotion had even become televised.

With chapters arranged in chronological order, the first chapter discusses the Bluestocking circles of wealthy and professional British women readers and writers in the mid- to late-1700s. Analyses of the critical reading practices of this group used both the published, edited letter correspondences of group members, and the unedited manuscript letters when available. Chapter 2 jumps forward a century to discuss a particular style of reading that came about from publishing a book a piece at a time over several months. Using Dicken’s Little Dorrit, the author recruited an experimental group to read the book over eighteen months, parceled out as it was originally published. Reading over time changed people’s reading experiences and habits including enhanced memory, more attention to plot and motivation, and double- and back-reading for more detail.

Chapter 3 covers the phenomenon of the National Home Reading Union, an organization which began in Britain in 1889 to support the formation of local reading circles. It quickly spread to British colonies and other countries. Circles read the same book to facilitate discussion. Their reading lists were considered authoritative and were even displayed by some libraries. While the founders hoped it would spur reading among the working class, most successful circles were of middle-class women.

The bulk of Chapter 4 is a professional biography of Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchings, particularly relating to their activities at the University of Chicago. The 1948 Syntopicon, a massive card catalog index of great Western ideas, and the 1952 Great Books of the Western World were part of their feats. Adler and Hutchins also sought to revise educational methods, advocating a Socratic, dialogue-based teaching method as opposed to college lecturing.

The remainder of the essays covers aspects of reading culture from the 1990s to the present. Concerning an online group for young adult literature, Chapter 5’s key point is that online interactions of virtual book club members are influenced by the perceived cultural authority of the member posting comments. Until people have established themselves in the online community their ideas are given little attention. Chapter 6 posits that reading groups are trivialized as “low-brow” compared to discussions of literature in academe, and that this distinction is partially due to the predominately female membership of reading groups, to groups’ focus on literary appreciation as opposed to analysis, and to the idea that “cultural value… [is] inversely proportionate to… popularity” (124).

In contrast to the cultural criticism of reading groups and the control over whose ideas are considered important that the previous two chapters noted, Chapter 7 describes women’s reading communities in Australia as safe emotional places where women develop a sense of identity through exchanging ideas in a nurturing environment.

The last two chapters predominately concern the relationship between publishers and reading groups. Recognizing the market potential of reading groups, publishers have begun creating reading guides that can be bound within the books, come separately as pamphlets or small books, or appear on publisher websites. Criticisms of these guides suggest that the proposed discussion questions focus more on creating an emotional connection to or appreciation of the work than fostering true analysis. While it can be difficult for publishers to identify book group audiences, they are recognized as a lucrative market. One publisher asked librarians to identify good potential book club books, and other publishers use a variety of means to amass large databases of readers and book club members.

Focusing predominately on the social aspects of reading, essays in this book cover various group reading movements over the years, social experiences of online and in-person book group members, and institutional involvement in reading group promotion. From the widespread efforts of the Home Reading Union in the 1800s, to the mass media phenomenon led by Oprah, to the ongoing The Big Read sponsored by the U.S. National Endowment of the Arts, organizers aim to increase reading among the general public by inspiring involvement in reading communally.

This excellent collection of essays offers a sampling of the interdisciplinary and international range of academic treatments of reading groups. I recommend this book to scholars, graduate students, librarians, and others who are interested in academic analyses of communal reading.

Susan K. Burke, University of Oklahoma