Book Clubs: The ‘All Women’s’ Clubbing?

Illustration depicting young women in the 19th century relaxing and reading on an August afternoon. (Universal Images/Getty Images)

By Neha Sheikh

IN 1989 when New York based photographer Lynn Gilbert decided to set in motion a reading group, she didn’t know she was setting an antecedent for urban New Yorkers to come together and enjoy the experience of reading. Book clubs were not common in the late 1900’s and Gilbert occasionally found it hard to gauge the interest of people. Audrey Zucker, a founding member of Gilbert’s club, said that they wanted this club to only be open to women. They wanted to create a space free from the shackles of society where women’s voices are frequently stifled. In a society that has been inherently patriarchal it is not an odd occurrence, even in the 21st century to come across predominantly male centric societies. Reading groups or book clubs started to become safe spaces for women to voice their opinions and be heard without being shunned down. It gave a new dimension  and purpose to their identity. In 19th century England it wasn’t rare to witness instances where women were prohibited from reading and engaging in literature. The idea of a woman getting inspired by literature and speaking her mind often scared men. This was mainly because it would result in a shift in paradigm, from one where women were only seen as homemakers to one where women could openly be creators, thinkers and enjoy their independence.

Today the question “What is your favorite genre of books?” evokes feelings of nostalgia, vivid memories and life altering experiences that often sprout with the power of a good book. To pin down one specific genre and a book within it is a feat for any avid reader. From science and horror fiction to poetry and biographies there is no unified structure when it comes to writing books. From Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon to Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilization literature manifests in a variety of magnificent forms. While one deals with fiction and the other with accounts of an English Journalist, upon explication common themes can be extracted from both the texts. To have a place to curate these ideas and stimulate a variety of discussions on one’s favorite books in an intellectual and thoughtful setting is vital. Book clubs created for this purpose, is a meeting of people with common or even varying interests in books, who upon reading a decided book for the set week come together to discuss the nuances in the explication of the book in question. For years now many readers have engaged in book clubs and with the onset of the pandemic these clubs have even adopted a virtual format.

Literature engaging with colonialism, poetry and fiction have often been the favorites of many book clubs. Contemporary authors and poets from Tayeb Salih and Mahmoud Darwish to Carol Ann Duffey and Amin Kamil have proven to be an influence in the lives of many.

“What fire is this, O Lord? City after city is burning. 

The reason turned into pitch-smoke, ifs and buts are burning. 

The roof’s aflame, the walls come down, the rooms ablaze 

Houses light up houses, person after person is burning.”

This snippet from Amin Kamil’s Cities on Fire touches the heart of many whilst evoking painful lived experiences. These lines among other interpretations can be nestled in various contexts in the current catastrophic political situation across the globe. From war torn areas to severely militarized and conflicted zones “city after city burning” indeed encapsulates the destruction of not only houses but the very foundation and essence of one’s identity. To be able to come together, pour over one’s favorite poets and discuss the impact of exceptional work is the cornerstone of any book club. On similar themes as Amin Kamal’s Cities on Fire, Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is a post colonial work that grapples with an interesting and thought provoking plot settled on prominent themes of colonization. With characters meeting acrimonious deaths, forced marriages and troubled pasts, this text traces the journey of a mysterious man, via an unknown narrator, who comes to Wad Hamid. Owing to a highly patriarchal culture in the village of Wad Hamid in Sudan, this text presents a complex yet very touching glimpse into the life of postcolonial Sudan.

Such interpretations are reflective in book clubs as these meetings are not only places of solidarity but also safe spaces for people to sit and discuss their thoughts. Liberation can often be obtained from discussions and reading texts. The support of other people in the process also often plays a huge role in finding one’s voice. This time we spoke to our readers to find out their experiences with book clubs and their relationship with reading.

When a controversial local TV interview went viral (with 10 million views and counting) Iranian-American political fashion blogger Hoda Katebi received a ton of attention, both good and bad. Katebi used it to start a virtual book club #BecauseWeveRead

“I think one of the things that got me through the pandemic-ridden monotony of summer is joining this book club at my university. Initially, I was a bit intimidated to commit to anything as last semester had been a big tragedy. But, I did not want to let go of a community where there was no compulsion or competition to finish readings as it generally is in classrooms. That sense of freedom to sit and decide democratically on subjects that you wanted to explore really piqued my interest and encouraged me to take this leap forward. It was a wonderful experience – reading for reading’s sake. We explored many themes and genres ranging from fiction to poetry to non-fiction to essays; all of which were done so with tenderness and curiosity that betrayed the stifling and uncompromising rigor that academia demands of one. Reading across multiple topics such as gender, sexuality, media, politics, and sometimes bits of fiction with the group, ensued by discussions that were uninhibited by any worry of having to say the right points all the time, made the experience enriching. These discussions would sometimes take anecdotal tangents and end up being the best part of the discussions. I loved the reading group, it helped me reconcile with my own love for reading and kept me a wonderful company throughout my otherwise dreary summer.”– Rania Raja, student

“Like most things this year, my book club too has gone virtual. The virtual mode allowed the membership of the club to grow manifold. We now have a 15 member group and meet once a week to share our views on the designated book of the week. During the span of the pandemic we have covered a wide variety of genres from fiction to true crime. The one hour that we spend discussing the nuances of the book, helps us grow closer and gives us a different perspective into things, it also provides an opportunity for us to discuss serious and pressing matters. The book club brings us a sense of comfort and community in these trying times.”– Saadiya Ahmed, student


“Book clubs were the essence of my childhood and I owe my  well-versed linguistic and grammar skills to the time I spent there. Even today I meet up with my book club friends and we enact classic plays, read philosophy books and enjoy Paulo Coelho’s writing with our favorite cup of noon chai. Joining book clubs also made me fall in love with reading which is something I shall cherish for life.”– Anoura Gani, student


“Book clubs promote a love of literature. They invoke a pleasant and nurturing environment. Its purpose is to bring a community of book lovers together to learn about and discuss something they all have in common, their love for books. They give us a chance to read and explore genres that you wouldn’t usually pick. I meet up with my book club every Friday and we discuss a lot of female authors and poets. We love Sylvia Plath and keep the first Friday of every month to discuss our poems.”– Didda Ashish, student


 

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