Alison Goldberg was never an avid reader, but when she got an email last October from the Camden County library suggesting Book Club in a Bag, she was intrigued.
"I had never been in a book club, but I thought it would be a nice excuse for friends to get together … without our kids, to be able to have adult time," said the Voorhees mom. She liked how easy the bag would make it — a long list of titles, enough books to supply each member, and discussion questions to kick-start the meeting.
For November, they chose The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, about the Carnegie Mellon professor's final class after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Even though many in the group had read it a decade ago, "We felt we would have a different perspective based on our stage of life," said Goldberg, 47. And they did. Now that her daughter is applying to colleges, Goldberg took to heart Pausch's advice as a professor.
Despite the gravity of that book selection, the nine women who meet for two hours each month find plenty to laugh about. Though most of them read the book, for those who didn't: "We love them anyway and still let them drink wine," Goldberg said.
Since 1996, when Oprah Winfrey brought book clubs to the masses, the literary equivalent has found innovative ways to stay relevant, from international online groups like the Girly Book Club (more than 80,000 members in 12 countries) to podcasts like Literary Disco to uber-focused groups on cookbooks or comic books. Readers (and listeners) can join literary road trips, supper clubs, cruises, and meet-ups on trains, in restaurants, and bars. There are even book lovers' games, like "Who Am I? A Name Game of Literary Stars."
But the basic book club remains alive and well.
Though there's no organization that keeps track of the number of book clubs or participants, the American Library Association launched Book Club Central in 2017 "to meet the needs of book clubs because they are so popular right now," said coordinator Robin Hoklotubbe in Corona, Calif., as evidenced by the expansive number of resources available online.
The group's website outlines how to find a book club in your area or create and run one yourself. It suggests titles and provides author interviews, and actress Sarah Jessica Parker serves as Book Club Central's honorary chair.
Though Book Club in a Bag is now offered in libraries throughout the country, it isn't a coordinated effort. Locally, the program started in the early 2000s, with each participating library adding its own spin. A bag generally contains six to 12 copies of one title, along with discussion questions. Most libraries offer more than 100 titles from which to choose, including fiction, nonfiction, classics, and best sellers, which patrons can keep for eight weeks.
"It's the perfect solution for our group because we're all very busy, and if we needed to have time to find a book on our own, we might not take that extra step," said Melissa Schraeder, 39, of Havertown, who started a book club with about 10 friends from her mom's club five years ago. "Also, the cost of all of us purchasing the book might have prohibited people from participating."
The program's popularity continues to grow, said Mary Lou Kolowitz, reference manager for the Haverford Township Free Library, where Book Club in a Bag was first offered in 2006 with 10 titles. Now, the library offers 143 titles. In 2018, 370 bags were checked out, up from 363 in 2017.
When the library notifies club members that new bags are available, "literally within five minutes we will get either a phone call or an email of somebody wanting to book the bag," she said. Haverford's kits include eight hardcover books, an additional copy with large print, an audio book, discussion questions and often an author bio, reviews, and a movie if one has been made.
Another advantage: Librarians vet the books. "We want to make sure the book is discussion-worthy," said Kolowitz.
Book Club in a Bag is about convenience, said Rosemary Scalese, head of adult services for the Camden County Library System. "One person is checking the bag out and can provide the books to everybody," she said. "And if we can't find discussion questions online, a librarian will have read the book and will create special questions for a group so people don't have to come up with their own."
In 2017, 191 book club bags were checked out from Camden County libraries. This year has already exceeded that number — as of October, 234 book club bags had been checked out. Scalese said the most popular title was The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand — checked out 23 times since Book Club in a Bag was implemented.
Since it began in 2003, One Book, One Philadelphia, which encourages Philadelphians to read and discuss a single book, has grown to offer more than 100 events around the city at libraries and partner organizations. Its 2019 selection, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, was announced last month.
Katherine Adriaanse read this year's selection, Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, with her book club — about 10 women and one man in their 20s through 40s. She attended two of the One Book programs, the kickoff event at the Free Library of Philadelphia and the author visit at Haverford Middle School.
"It makes us feel more like part of the community, even out here in the suburbs, that we can be reading the same things that Philadelphia is reading and have that common experience," said Adriaanse, 26, who lives in Brewerytown but who works in Haverford and whose group meets each month at the Oakmont National Pub in Havertown. "When there's food and drinks involved, there's more of an opportunity for people to come and have a social experience around books and talk about something we've all read."