On any given night in Seattle, you might see a drag queen protesting once-banned books by shimmying her way out of a polyester housedress in a campy homage to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. You could check out the Bushwick Book Club and hear a local musician croon about Edmund Pevensie’s dangerous love of Turkish delight in a song inspired by C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Or perhaps you might nestle into the dim corner of a bar to read, only to find yourself arguing with a quartet of strangers over the eerie disquiet of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy.
Seattle is a city that loves books, a city that celebrates the act of reading. Beneath the bustling surface of its official events, the loam of Seattle’s literary ecology teems with the support of a softer kind of network. Our public love of the written word fuels an extensive series of book clubs, and—in living rooms and bookstores, in social clubs and cafes—groups of book lovers can be found coming together for the same simple reason: because we want to talk about what we’re reading.
Reading is a solitary proposition, an invitation for one person to enter the delicate paper confines of a different world. As we leaf through the pages of a book, we try on the rich ambiguities of lives and ideas that are not our own; we trace the shorelines of unfamiliar hopes and fears, and through these journeys expand our empathy, cultivate greater perspective and emerge richer for the distance we have traveled.
Although we read alone, we yearn to share these experiences—to speak with others who have met the same characters and explored the same stories. Whether it’s a group of nascent feminists tackling the concepts of Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto or a gathering of cartoonists studying medical graphic novels, all book clubs use the intimate internal landscape of a book to glean collective insight into the complexities of our lives.
Book clubs hearken back to a primal longing for community reflection. “In a city setting, I think it appeals to the cave-person urge in us all to share storytelling around the fire—now we’re deconstructing stories around potlucks of pita chips,” says Alicia Craven, who organizes a local reading group dedicated to Icelandic history.
The communal impulse to gather over stories long predates the existence of books, and from the Irish seanchaí to the West African griot, most cultures contain some version of the wandering bard, the guardian of oral tradition whose blend of myth and truth tells a people who they are. With a largely illiterate populace and no readily available means to mass produce the written word, early storytellers served as living archives, memory keepers who ensured that the defining narratives of a culture were passed down across its generations.
Through the medieval era, when monks still laboriously copied texts by hand, books were precious objects that held little utility for the general public. This changed dramatically in 1440 when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and fundamentally democratized the way humans engage with the written word. Gutenberg’s machine paved the way for the bestseller: For the first time, it was possible for large, unrelated groups of people to have read the same book. As as a growing number of readers gained more access to text, the diversity of books being printed increased, and publishing was no longer relegated to the insular sphere of wealthy institutions.
The first book clubs emerged in the 1700s, during the liminal state where the technology to print books existed but remained outside the financial reach of most individuals. Book clubs, mostly in New England, allowed readers to pool their membership dues to fund small-scale print runs that would ensure texts didn’t fade into obscurity. One of the oldest documented book clubs—the Junto, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1726—eventually broadened to become the Philadelphia Library. One of the first women’s book clubs—the Ladies’ Literary Club of Ypsilanti, Mich.—has been meeting continuously since 1878.
These days, the female dominance of book-club demographics is accepted to the point of parody, but it’s worth noting that the stereotype of women and book clubs arose from an initial spirit of rebellion. Barred from the academic institutions of their day, women formed social clubs as a means to engage in activism and sate their appetites for intellectual rigor. These groups championed female education—providing scholarships, founding libraries and fighting for social reform—and literary discussion groups often served as their cornerstones. One of the first documented women’s clubs began in 1868 when a group of established female writers was denied entry to a New York Press Club event honoring Charles Dickens. Led by journalist Jane Cunningham Croly, the women founded their own club and named it Sorosis—a botanical term that refers to a fruit formed of multiple parts, specifically “the ovaries of multiple flowers.”
Book clubs continued to multiply until the 1926 launch of the Book of the Month Club—a subscription program that’s still going strong, popularizing the model in which large groups of people simultaneously read the same book. Reading group membership rose steadily for the next 70 years until Oprah changed the game again in 1996, starting Oprah’s Book Club to “Get America reading again!” Today, The New York Times estimates that some 5 million Americans belong to book clubs.
With our long winters and gorgeous overabundance of independent booksellers, it’s no surprise that Seattle has a thriving population of books clubs. The city’s literary scene manages to support a mystery bookshop, an anarchist bookshop and a bookshop devoted to cookbooks, so it’s only natural that it would also support a dazzlingly idiosyncratic array of book clubs.
The sidewalk sandwich board for Ada’s Technical Books on top of Capitol Hill advertises everything from sewable circuitry workshops to classical music recitals. But book clubs are the anchor of Ada’s extensive programming, according to the store’s events manager, Alex Hughes. “The shop came into being because we wanted a place where like-minded people could get together and share ideas,” he says, “and the book clubs arose out of that same spirit.”
Ada’s currently offers four clubs for different types of books: History of Discovery, Human Experience, Classics of Science Fiction, and 21st Century Science Fiction. Each club gathers monthly, and reading groups dissect everything from infrastructure decay in the wake of a hypothetical apocalypse (The World Without Us by Alan Weisman) to the history of American slavery as seen through the eyes of a female African American time traveler (Octavia Butler’s Kindred).
“We are really trying to read things outside of the accepted canon,” Hughes says over coffee in the elegant coworking space above the main shop. He stresses that the book clubs challenge the idea that all science fiction is written by white men, and also that their selections strive for an even split between male and female authors.
Diverse voices are also top priority for the book club hosted by APRIL (Authors, Publishers and Readers of Independent Literature), which focuses exclusively on books released on independent imprints and invites local guest authors to select the titles that the club reads.
“Having a different curator every time means that really different books are picked every time,” says APRIL’s managing director,Tara Atkinson. A wide variety of selections leaves room for disagreement and debate, and nothing makes for a better book club than strongly divergent opinions about the material.
The Bushwick Book Club picks a book each month and then asks musicians to create and perform original works inspired by it. “I saw the original Bushwick Book Club while living in Brooklyn in 2009,” Bushwick Book Club Seattle’s executive director Geoff Larson tells me, “and I just knew Seattle would eat the idea up.”
When Larson returned to Seattle in 2010, he gathered 10 of his musician friends and booked a night at the Can Can. Five years later, the organization has showcased new work by hundreds of musicians based on books such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It also runs STYLE (Songwriting Through Youth Literature Education), an educational outreach program that sends professional musicians into Seattle schools to help students craft original songs about the books they’re reading.
This wide array of public book clubs is matched by the gatherings occurring in private homes, and Seattle’s bibliophiles are constantly forming new groups to meet their curiosities. If you can dream up a themed book club, it probably already exists.
Like many book clubs, the DBC (Drunken Book Club) began informally. “I was reading A Passage to India and suggested that [my friends and I] watch the movie when I was done,” co-founder Tim Thirkield says. “We decided to get take-out Indian food and thus had a theme night.”
For about five years, DBC has adhered to this theme: They only read books that have been turned into movies, and every meeting features a viewing of the film and thematically appropriate food (Southern for Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Asian for Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and “even 7-11 and Pepsi” for Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals). Thirkield says people “usually scream at the TV about how bad the adaptation is.”
While DBC formed organically, many themed book clubs grow in response to a specific shared interest. Comics Fever, a group of cartoonists that meets every few months to discuss comics and graphic novels pertaining to medical and public health issues, began when cartoonist David Lasky realized that a number of local professionals were working at this very specific intersection. Althea Lazarro’s book club arose when a group of female friends wanted to learn more about feminism.
“We thought that if we were reading together,” Lazarro says, “we could pool our intellectual resources and gain a better understanding.” Books allow the women new entry points into their topic, and together they have explored perspectives as varied as bell hooks’ introductory Feminism Is for Everybody and Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor’s young-adult fantasy novel about the burgeoning magical powers of a 12-year-old Nigerian American girl.
Meetings of Alicia Craven’s Icelandic History Book Club serve as a fitting way to explore the culture in Reykjavik, Seattle’s sister literary city. “[Iceland] has one of the highest per capita rates of published authors in the world,” Craven says, “and it’s not uncommon for people from all walks of life and professional backgrounds to have side passions in writing, music, art, etc. During the long winters and long sea journeys, one of the major forms of entertainment and social cohesion was storytelling and a devotion to letters.”
No matter the topic, book clubs are about the exchange of ideas. By deepening our engagement with books, we also grow closer to the people we read them with.
So what are you reading? Let’s talk about it.
Seattle’s slate of story reading series’ for adults is also growing. Read more about it here.