The Best Book Clubs Throughout History
Throughout history, book clubs have offered great minds the opportunity to share and discuss complex ideas.
As we celebrate the launch of our own book club, we decided to compile a list of some of the most notable book clubs ever hosted!
Organized from oldest to newest, these are the best book clubs throughout history!
Great philosophers such as Socrates, Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Plato congregated at The Socrates School in approximately 400 BC. Far from the traditional school scene of chalkboards and hard-backed chairs, this group met to discuss questions of human nature, politics, life, and reality. Many of these engrossing meetings were preserved in written texts like Plato’s Dialogues.
Socrates’s life was dedicated to teaching the youth of Athens. Together with his fellow philosophers at The Socrates School, they built the platform for Western philosophy.
Socratic circles, also known as Socratic seminars, are based on Socrates’s belief in the power of asking questions. This method of learning and discussion has been used for thousands of years and Socratic circles take place all over the world.
To hold a Socratic circle, a group must choose and analyze a thought-provoking text through inquiry, thoughtful response, and communal spirit. Questions are open-ended and encourage lively discussion. In essence, gaining insight into a particular text is more important than answering questions “correctly.”
It is said that the mysterious Pythagoras and his followers settled in South Italy around 530 BC and quickly became known for their equally mysterious ideals. Pythagoreans believed firmly in the transmigration of the soul, which may have contributed to their being some of the world’s first vegetarians. They were also forbidden to eat beans, though the reasoning behind the rule is yet unknown.
Pythagoreans were supremely superstitious and mystical, believing that the human soul was trapped in a never-ending cycle of death and reincarnation. It was their belief that the only way to free themselves from this cycle was to gain a better understanding of the universe. This type of knowledge could only be granted through introspection and philosophical study, so the Pythagoreans dedicated themselves to their learning.
In the end, they concluded that everything in the universe had one thing in common: it was numerable. Numbers became the basis of Pythagorean philosophy. Some numbers, such as the number one, were considered to be holy.
As Pythagorean philosophy marched on, it grew more and more inexplicable. The number seven came to represent wisdom. The number eight came to represent justice. But no connections were made between these beliefs and philosophical principle.
Though the Pythagoreans made lasting contributions to the areas of math and philosophy, due to general persecution, Pythagoras and his followers were forced to flee Italy in 480 BC.
This book club was founded by none other than Benjamin Franklin and his literature-loving friends in 1727. The Philadelphia-based club was comprised of tradesmen and artisans, all of whom enjoyed a good, heartfelt discussion about morals, politics, and natural philosophy. Beloved by Franklin’s community, the Junto Club convened on Friday evenings for nearly 40 years.
The club served the community by acting as a platform for various public projects. Some of Franklin’s weekly meetings resulted in plans for the first lending library, the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Hospital, and others. The club members were some of the most active members in the community and became known for regulating and improving the city watch.
Besides the planning of public projects, Franklin structured his meetings with a list of 24 questions. These included:
- “What new story have you lately heard agreeable for telling in conversation?”
- “What unhappy effects of intemperance have you lately observed or heard? of imprudence? of passion? or of any other vice or folly?”
- “Have you or any of your acquaintance been lately sick or wounded? If so, what remedies were used, and what were their effects?”
- “Do you know of any deserving young beginner lately set up, whom it lies in the power of the Junto any way to encourage?”
- “Have you lately observed any encroachment on the just liberties of the people?”
- “Do you see anything amiss in the present customs or proceedings of the Junto, which might be amended?”
In 1743, a new branch of the Junto Club was created. It was called the American Philosophical Society and still exists to this day.
When Charles Dickens visited the United States in 1842, Edgar Allan Poe requested a meeting with him. The two men ended up at a hotel in Philadelphia, where they discussed their favorite authors and their ideas for an international copyright law.
But Poe had another topic in mind. He needed help to get his book, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, published in England. Dickens vowed to do everything in his power to help his new acquaintance. Unfortunately, nine months later, Dickens had run out of publishers to whom he could pitch Poe’s book.
Twenty-five years after the meeting, Dickens returned to the United States, but Poe had already passed away. Feeling guilty that he was never able to achieve what he had promised, Dickens tracked down Poe’s mother-in-law and gave her some of his savings.
Sarah Atwater Denman founded this historic book club back in 1866. Denman came from a family that helped found Yale College and was known to be an independent thinker. She loved reading and dedicated herself to keeping up with the latest books and journals.
Denman was a particularly driven individual and encouraged the intellectual and spiritual development of the women in her community. This passion is what eventually lead her to found Friends in Council.
In November of 1866, Denman invited 11 ladies to her home to create a study plan. She wanted each member of her book club to develop a philosophical point of view for herself, and a study plan was an excellent place to begin. Over time, Friends in Council consumed great works of history and philosophy, spending two years on Plato alone.
Denman believed it was her club’s “duty to emancipate ourselves from party-spirit, prejudice, and passion” and to “cultivate a love of truth, tolerance, and patience.” She had a close friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson and the philosopher Alcott — both of whom met with Friends in Council on multiple occasions.
Friends in Council is the oldest continuous women’s literary club in America and the only one with its own meeting house. The house was a gift from Denman in 1878. It is currently situated on the grounds of the John Wood Mansion, where it has been since 1915.
The Bloomsbury Group included a few names you’ll probably recognize… writers Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, economist John Maynard Keynes, critic Clive Bell, and painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. The group first convened in 1907 and continued to meet regularly throughout the 1930s.
The group often met at Clive and Vanessa Bell’s home in the Bloomsbury district of Central London. Strangely, the members denied being a formal group at all. Even so, they were known to study modernity in literature, criticism, art, and economics together.
What would happen if Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein all sat in a room together?
According to history, they would discuss modernism and literature.
Writers, poets, composers, and artists gathered at “Stratford-on-Odeon” (Joyce’s nickname for the bookstore Shakespeare and Company) in the 1920s. The store owner, Sylvia Beach, published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. Sadly, the store was closed during the German occupation of Paris in World War II, and the club was disbanded.
The Algonquin Round Table met during the 1920s, a group of New York City writers including Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kauffman, Franklin Pierce Adams, Marc Connolly, and Edna Ferber. They gathered to share jokes and snide remarks over a hearty meal.
This club grew in popularity until it was meeting almost daily at the Algonquin Hotel. The lunch meetings were known to be boisterous but always entertaining.
The Book of the Month Club was a mail-order business, founded by Harry Sherman in 1926. Up until that point, Sherman was just a guy who loved literature, particularly Shakespeare. He briefly pursued a degree in economics and another in law before becoming a copywriter in order to fund his creative writing endeavors. Unfortunately, New York publishers had no interest in Sherman’s plays or stories. His success as a mail-order copywriter, however, lead him to co-found Little Leather Library (LLL) in 1916.
LLL became the platform for many book clubs. For just $2.98, LLL would mail “30 Great Books” and as many chocolate treats as they could fit alongside them. All of LLL’s titles were in the public domain and were quickly snatched up by the public. In just five years, Sherman and his business partners had sold 30 million copies of the books.
Little Leather Library grew into Book of the Month Club, which shipped new-release books to subscribers, rather than old classics. Each book was hand-picked by a panel of editorial experts, whom readers respected and admired.
By 1927, Book of the Month Club had over 60,000 subscribers, and a new class of readers was created. Though it received some backlash from critics, the Club soon became a household name. Readers found titles like Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird on their doorsteps.
Today, Book of the Month Club boasts more than one million subscribers, and Harry Sherman is considered “the father of the mail-order business.”
The Inklings met at Oxford in the 1930s and 40s to discuss each others’ work — including J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was joined by writers such as C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Roger Lancelyn Green, and Adam Fox.
Most of these famous gatherings were held in C. S. Lewis’s room, but on various occasions, the Inklings could be found at The Eagle and the Child, an Oxford pub.
Comics are books, too!
In 1965, during a visit to New York, Italian film director Federico Fellini caught a nasty virus and ended up stranded at the Hotel Pierre. Someone brought him a stack of Marvel comics to read, and he was so impressed with the books that he called the Marvel Comics office to set up a meeting with Stan Lee.
In a not-at-all-standard book club event, Fellini arrived at Lee’s office with a four-man entourage and a translator. The two men had such a nice chat about Lee’s comic books that they stayed in touch after the meeting. Fellini attended multiple Broadway shows with Lee, and he visited Fellini’s villa in Rome… all thanks to Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk.
This one had to make the list, right? Oprah Winfrey founded her televised book club in 1996, picking The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard to be the club’s first read.
It didn’t take long for Oprah’s Book Club to become influential in the publishing world. Oprah’s endorsement carries a lot of weight, and her followers soon came to rely on her book recommendations. Little-known books began to top charts as she chose to highlight them, and many of her selections have since sold over one million copies. She has shown overwhelming support for debut authors as well.
In 2003, Oprah began recommending classic titles, including The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. The following year, she picked Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and the publisher printed an extra 800,000 copies of the novel.
In 2005, Oprah once again began picking contemporary titles. This enabled her to have in-person discussions with the books’ authors, which her followers enjoyed immensely.
By the final season of her TV show (2011), Oprah had chosen over 60 titles for her book club. Each of the books resonated with readers across the country, and The Deep End of the Ocean remains a clear favorite among members.
This book club is one of the largest history and non-fiction groups on the web, founded in 2008. With members from over 171 countries, it’s hard to find a better place to discuss the stories that shaped the world as we know it. If you’re interested in history, then this is the book club for you.
History Book Club focuses on autobiographies, military history, world history, POTUS, ancient history, historical fiction, current events, poetry, music, Civil Rights, art, architecture, history of religions, naval history, and more, with a heavy emphasis on non-fiction books. Their popular Book of the Month discussion highlights award-winning and bestselling books.
The club is in the midst of a year-long read, On Politics by Alan Ryan, and a year-and-a-half-long read, The Federalist Papers. It is currently open to anyone who wishes to join, but don’t forget to introduce yourself to the other members! There may be nearly 16,000 of them, but they love welcoming newbies.
Warning: “Joining this group is highly addictive.”
If you think your to-be-read list is long now, just wait until you see this book club. According to its members, you don’t need to pick up just a few books. You need all of them. And yes, it is hard to ignore the cheering of these 17,000 readers as you empty your wallet at the nearest bookstore.
The Next Best Book Club is the perfect place to find great book recommendations and to recommend books to others. Just check out their blog to get started!
Reading is magical in that it allows you to travel from the comfort of your own home! If you’re a fan of world literature and/or travel writing, then this is the book club for you.
Around the World in 80 Books (ATW80) was founded in 2011, but the club began as a challenge in a separate group, The Next Best Book Club, in 2009.
ATW80 is open to anyone who “loves reading books from around the world.” They currently have nearly 40,000 books cataloged by setting, and the list grows each month.
Florence Welch, lead singer of Florence + the Machine, inadvertently started this book club in 2012. She is an avid bookworm and can frequently be found browsing bookshelves. After tweeting a photo of herself in front of a bookstore, her fans created a Facebook-based book club in her honor. Today, the page hosts book recommendations from Welch herself, as well as from people whom she considers to be her biggest influences. Needless to say, her fans approve.
Since the founding of Between Two Books, Welch has written her own lyrics and poetry book, Useless Magic. It is set to release in July.
With so many classic books to read in one lifetime and only four years of high school forcing you to power through, it’s hard not to feel a bit overwhelmed. Thanks to this book club, though, you can now join nearly 3,000 others in their quest to experience great literature.
Never Too Late to Read Classics (NTLTRC), founded in 2014, covers diverse and international classics, as well as American/English classics. It’s all about reading for the sake of enjoyment. They define “classic” books as being…
- 50 years or older.
- good things from the past.
- noteworthy and impactful.
Join the club and find out what’s so special about these old and beloved books!
If you enjoy reading as much as we do, then you’ve definitely heard about Emma Watson’s book club, Our Shared Shelf. Watson founded this feminist club in 2016, and it has since become a worldwide sensation.
Watson is a UN Women Goodwill ambassador and is passionate about equality. Her drive to continuously learn about the issues that face women today is what lead her to create Our Shared Shelf. She uses her book club as a platform for sharing her learning and connecting with other readers.
Our Shared Shelf reads and discusses one book per month. It encourages “lively debate, passionate discussion, intellectual curiosity, and respectful interactions.”
When you hear “Andrew Luck”, you probably picture him with a football, not a book. It came as a surprise, therefore, when Luck founded his own book club in 2016. Since then, he has become known as a passionate reader who greatly enjoys discussing books.
Luck’s inspiration for the club sparked during an interview with Men in Blazers in 2015. Hosts Roger Bennett and Michael Davies joked about an Andrew Luck Book Club, and soon, the #ALBookClub hashtag appeared on Twitter. Luck finally made it official with his own website and hasn’t looked back.
Book club members are considered “team members” and are divided into one of two categories: “Rookies” (younger readers) or “Veterans” (more experienced readers). Each month, Luck recommends one book to each category. The books are then discussed on his website and through the #ALBookClub hashtag.
Belletrist is another celebrity book club, founded by actress Emma Roberts last year. The club aims to “[celebrate] great books and the people who read them.”
Each month, Belletrist highlights a book, as well as a favorite independent bookstore. How cool is that?! Both book and bookstore are carefully chosen by Emma Roberts and her co-founder, Karah Preiss. Their April book is Laura & Emma by debut author Kate Greathead, and their featured bookstore is Farley’s Bookshop in New Hope, Pennsylvania. There’s a coupon code for both on the Belletrist website!
This is the “official unofficial” book club that dives into Goodreads Choice Award-winning books throughout the year. They read multiple books per month, but don’t let that scare you — you’ve probably already read some of them!
Goodreads Choice Awards are decided by readers at the end of each year, the only major book awards to operate in this fashion. Readers choose a favorite book from 20 different categories (including Fiction, Mystery & Thriller, Historical Fiction and Fantasy), and the book with the most votes within each category wins.
The Goodreads Choice Awards Book Club is a great place to catch up on all those books you meant to read last year but never picked up. It’s also perfect for discussing your favorite oldies but goodies. What more do you need in a book club?
This is the most active apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian book club. Members read books by the month and regularly recommend their favorites. They’ve read titles like All the Little Children by Jo Furniss, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Year One by Nora Roberts, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
Due to the intense nature of some the club’s books and discussions, Apocalypse Whenever is open to adults only. You must be 18 years or older to join.
This book club is for six types of people, as detailed on Everyone has Read This but Me’s about page…
- The people who are behind on classics
- The people who slept through English class in high school
- The people who buy popular books but don’t actually read them
- The people who listen to the hype surrounding certain books and maybe eventually pick them up
- The people who want to read books outside their go-to genre
- The people who want to appease their family members/friends/co-workers who have been incessantly recommending the same books for years
Each month, the club chooses three books to read — one classic, one popular book, and one bookshelf catch-up. The catch-up is a book that the club has already read and is used to catch up with other members of the group.
Are you addicted to young adult fiction? Then this may be the book club for you. Addicted to YA is the perfect place to share your thoughts on YA books with other YA readers. Group discussions are based on members’ current reads and favorite characters.
A few of the club’s current reads are The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo, and The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli. With nearly 30,000 members, this club is bursting with insight into the world of YA literature.
That’s right! We are launching our very own book club! Every two weeks, we will host a live discussion about a selected book.
Want to participate? Simply join our Facebook group here!
The first book we will read is Skin in the Game by Nassim Taleb. Please finish the book by May 6th!
Later that week, we will host a Facebook Live in the Facebook Group where we will:
- Take a deep dive into the topics discussed in the book
- Give our honest review of the book
- Answer questions and read comments from the viewers
- Share actionable insights and key takeaways that you can apply to your everyday life
Even more exciting?!
You can get a copy of Skin in the Game for free by following these directions.
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