Reading groups have become an important, and certainly much talked-about cultural phenomenon in Britain and other countries. Reading groups, book groups, book clubs - the terms are used interchangeably - regularly meet in members’ houses, in pubs or restaurants, in book shops, workplaces, schools or prisons, or more recently online to share their experiences of reading contemporary fiction and sometimes more established canonical literature. A survey has estimated the number of such groups at around 50,000 in Britain, and up to 500,000 in the USA (Hartley, 2002, see select bibliography). There is also something of a reading group industry producing online guidance, magazines, books and published reading lists, while reading groups have, in their turn, affected the marketing of books by publishers and book sellers.
Reading plays an important part in many people’s lives - it has sometimes been termed ‘a tool for living’. And reading is not simply a private matter: people have always discussed, debated and argued about their reading, and contemporary reading groups can provide an excellent forum for critical debate. The research has tried to find out more about this, focussing on the reading choices of a diverse range of reading groups in Britain.
Despite the cultural salience of reading group activity, reading groups are relatively under-researched. While the main purpose of reading groups is discussion, only a few published studies have looked in detail at their spoken or online interaction. The research thus contributes to the understanding of a widespread but under-researched contemporary literary practice.
This research is made possible by an AHRC grant.