The printing press went into mass effect in 1455, and with it came a literary revolution. While most people still couldn’t afford books (or even learn to read), the higher aristocracies in areas managed to “hoard” most of the books published across the world. About 200 years later, books became a bit more accessible, especially is multiple copies. As books were produced more, more people could purchase them, and thus began open discussion about published works.
The first real book clubs were believed to have begun in France between the 1600’s and 1700’s in “parlor meetings,” where women would gather to discuss books (a rather scandalous behavior at the time). A lot of cafes and public spaces were discussion forums for various books, and men especially could discuss their new reading materials in pretty much any setting. Many “book club historians” (if there were such a thing) believe that this sparked the idea that people could get together to specifically discuss a new publication.
Because of the expense of books until the beginning of the 20th century, some people simply “pitched” on books together, and passed them around between their friends and family. After everyone had read it, they would discuss an idea. In fact, this is how libraries started – first in New York and then in Boston. Groups of people would buy books together, and then lend out their copies for free to others who had no chance of affording it.
Towards the end of the 19th century, more and more women began noticing their need for intellectual and personal rights. Instead of gathering for sewing, knitting, or childcare functions, they began coming together to read, increase their knowledge, and discuss revolutionary ideas. This is also considered one of the reasons that book clubs are still mostly female today – because of the roots in the suffrage movement.
In the early 1900’s, book publishers began releasing books en masse, and programs like “A Book a Month” began popping up at affordable rates. This is when home book buying began to be commonplace, and made it possible for people to own books that everyone else owned as well. Towards the 1940’s and 1950’s, suburbs began popping up and reading (being the only affordable entertainment, as TV was still very expensive) became a central conversation piece, especially for housewives.
Of course, as TV became more popular in the late 1900’s, fewer people read unless it was related to school. Then Oprah came along, and made book clubs cool again. Everyone wanted to read what the queen of daytime television was reading, and suddenly book clubs began popping up all over the place. Today, it’s estimated that there are about 100,000 operating official book clubs in the US (between libraries and churches that file official book club chapters). However, a quick Google search turns up over 14.5 million results, indicating that there are plenty more out there that are just not “official.” That’s a lot of book clubs!