|Parties where playwrights like Moliere read aloud were precursors to rowdy book clubs.|
In theory, book clubs are supposed to be about reading and discussing books. In practice, they are often more about hanging out with a group of people, drinking, gossiping, and generally having a nice evening. Depending on the percentage of the group that has actually read the book, it may be discussed, or it may not. The book is the excuse, not necessarily the point.
It turns out it’s always been this way.
Ever since the advent of book clubs in 18th-century England, when books were scarce and expensive, these organizations have been about more than reading. 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. As the University of St. Andrews’ David Allan writes in A Nation of Readers, “In most cases, food and alcohol in copious quantities, accompanied we may suspect by a considerable element of boisterous good humour, played an important part in the life of the book clubs.”
Book clubs were part of this literary culture. In book clubs today every member might buy his or her 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. There are few records of the activities of these early book clubs, but those that survive indicate that, as with today’s book clubs, members intended to get together and talk about books, but social aspects were key selling points.
One club, for instance, had 22 members (including Branwell Brontë, the sole brother of the literary siblings) and met for monthly dinners. “A broad hint of conviviality is given in the rules,” writes Kaufman, “which imposed 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, lasted for decades, and the dinners were a key feature for it as well. “Article XV of the Regulations emphasizes in detail the monthly dinners, specifying—with elaborate exceptions—the Tuesday before the full moon,” Kaufman reports. A member who missed the dinner had to pay a shilling. For other misdemeanors, which included letting a dog into the club room or revealing his vote for or against a potential new member, members had to contribute a bottle of wine.