Ask people why they participate in a book club and you’ll likely hear the words "eye-opening," "engaging," and "worthwhile."
Descriptors like those are especially apropos when book clubs seek to deepen citizens’ understanding of public issues. These days civic understanding is under the influence of partisanship and superficiality. An antidote is available when citizens read and discuss books together.
A powerful example is an endeavor called "Politics for The People"(P4P). It’s a book club that, ironically, didn’t start as one. It began about fifteen years ago as an educational program designed to help New York City independents learn more about American history and politics.
“The conversations were so engaging that we decided to go national,” founder Cathy Stewart said. “And that’s when the idea for a book club emerged.”
Stewart, an independent activist and vice president of IndependentVoting.org, designed P4P to bridge political divides. It’s a forum for independent-minded Americans who want to participate in serious discussions in nonpartisan ways.
“Our 335 members come from across the country, and include avid book readers and people who never picked up a book before joining Politics for the People. We are as diverse as America, from all walks of life, racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds. Together we create a very engaging and rich conversation with our authors,” Stewart says.
But there’s commonality amid this diversity. Each book focuses on a historical/contemporary issue and is selected to challenge conventional thinking.
Consider, for example, the book selected for reading this month: David Daley’s, Rat F**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy. The saucy title—a colloquialism for political sabotage—was used in the legendary book about the Watergate scandal, All The President’s Men. Daley uses the reference in his explosive exposé of the Republican campaign (REDMAP), which began in 2010 to take control of redistricting processes across the country.
“This is not an argument for Democratic control of Congress,” Daley says. “This is the story of how one election tilted our democracy in unforeseen ways, for the unforeseeable future.” Rat F**ked is especially timely reading as redistricting makes its way to the Supreme Court.
Past P4P club explorations have included:
- EVICTED: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (Pulitzer Prize winner)
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (Pulitzer Prize winner)
- The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State by Lisa McGirr
- The Notion of Family by Latoya Ruby Frazier (McArthur Fellow)
- I am Abraham by Jerome Charyn (Guggenheim Fellow)
- The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents by Linda Killian
- Who Stole The American Dream? Can We Get It Back? by Hedrick Smith (Pulitzer Prize winner)
That reading list includes fictional selections.
“I think it's an important time to challenge the notion that there’s one truth and a single view of history,” Stewart observes. “Fiction frees us up to explore different and multiple framings.”
Each author engages with P4P members during an hour-long, no-cost national conference call. Prior to each call, P4P members write interpretations of the book, which are then posted on the club’s web page for members and the author to read. Submitters can also carve out questions from their essays, or come up with brand new ones for discussion on the call.
After making an opening statement about the book, the author answers each question, which is posed to him or her personally by the member who wrote it.
Readers’ interpretations help the author, too. Alex Myers (Revolutionary) said: “It felt like a conversation we need to have as a nation.”
At the end of the day, though, book clubs persist only if there’s continuing interest and enthusiasm. P4P’s participants exhibit both.
“I always take something meaningful away from the club,” said Stephanie Harris of Brooklyn, New York.
Member Al Bell of Peoria, Arizona, believes that democratic participation “requires endless learning and P4P is a powerful vehicle for that purpose.”
And Dr. Jessie Fields, a physician in Harlem, likes everything about P4P: “The authors are outstanding. The books are fascinating. The conference calls are fantastic. Everybody grows!”
If there’s a secret to P4P’s long-term success it may be this: it nourishes inquisitive minds as it renews the spirit of democracy.
The next Politics for the People National Book Club conversation will take place Sunday, June 4, at 7pm EST. To join in on the conversation with David Daley, author of "Rat F**ked: The True Story behind the Secret Plan to Steal Americas Democracy," dial 641-715-3605 and enter the code 767775#.
Editor's note: This article was co-authored by Frank Fear and Kerry Malloy, a staff member at IndependentVoting.org.