Book Clubs in France and the United States

While the American style of book club is growing in popularity with French people, particularly via social media, the culture of group reading is not as widespread in France as in the United States. Publishing historian Jean-Yves Mollier compares U.S. book clubs — originally inspired by religion — and their French counterparts — born of worker’s rights and activism.

France-Amérique: What is a book club?

Jean-Yves Mollier: A book club, also known as a reading group or reading circle, does not mean the same thing in every country. In the United States, it refers to meetings of several people who will discuss books they have all read. This is based on the famous model of Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. However, the European version is closer to the Left Book Club, an organization that appeared in the U.K. during the inter-war period and in Germany before the rise of Nazism. This club was a publishing strategy, and meetings were arranged by networks of book stores to sell more products. Tens of thousands of people from working class backgrounds would become members of these clubs to take advantage of the lower prices. These groups sprang up in France from 1945 onwards, and today a residual form subsists in organizations such as France Loisirs.

Did American-style book clubs ever exist in Europe?

There have been many forms of book clubs throughout history. They may not have been referred to as such, but they were certainly the signs of a collective appropriation of written works by people with little to do with the literary world. During the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, factories developed faster than widespread public literacy and education. As a result, unions and workers held meetings at which newspapers would be read aloud. In France in 1862, workers pooled their money to buy the ten volumes of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and began organizing informal book clubs. They would read the volumes, share them, and have discussions afterwards. These groups were born of an ideological goal – a socialist project to bring reading to the masses. Their members were activists.

Have there been other, non-activist forms of book clubs?

In traditionally protestant countries such as Britain, Switzerland, and the United States, families would read the Bible together. Women in America would meet to talk about the pastor’s sermons. This was less the case in traditionally catholic France. But before the French Revolution, there are said to have been meetings known as veillées des chaumières at which books would be read together. However, there are no physical records to say whether they were frequent events, nor if they were religious. Certain images can also be misleading; although many engravings depict group readings, that doesn’t mean they actually existed.

What is the situation today?

The American, “Oprah-style” book club in which reading and experiences of reading are shared has never really taken hold in France. It appeared some 15 years ago along with social media, and with the media attention attracted by some U.S. book clubs. Other similar groups have since formed, and people are now speaking directly and openly online about what they have read. I personally see this demographic as relatively young and connected, and I think these sorts of interactions should be encouraged and developed.

=> Read our article on America’s booming Francophone and Francophile book clubs in the January 2018 issue of France-Amérique.