Book clubs have been a part of American life since 1634 when Anne Hutchinson started a “literary circle” for women as they crossed the Atlantic en route to the colonies. In 1840, Margaret Fuller founded the first book club sponsored by a book store, and by the mid 1800’s book clubs began to spread across the Midwest.
Today, estimates are that 5 million Americans participate in book clubs.
In 2011, I established the Politics for the People (P4P) Book Club for independents. The book club was an extension of a popular education series that I ran for the New York City Independence Clubs. I wanted to provide a national forum for independents to build a community of curiosity that was exploring politics and history together from a nonpartisan, independent point of view.
A book club seemed the perfect fit.
The Politics for the People Book Club has a unique approach. We’ve created a forum for club members to engage with world-class authors about critical issues and moments in the American experiment at a time when civic discourse is corroded by both partisanship and superficiality.
We read each of our selections over six to eight weeks. Our reading is echoed in an interactive blog that includes videos, literary reviews, background materials and, most importantly, the thoughts, reflections, and commentary from our members.
The P4P blog becomes a crossroads that adds depth to our reading experience and creates a sense of community among our members. And just as we read our authors’ words, they read the words of independent Americans responding to their work.
Each selection culminates in a conference call with our author where we explore the book and create a conversation through questions from our members. Authors and book club members alike find the conference calls stimulating and thought-provoking.
Alex Myers, the author of Revolutionary (a historical novel about Deborah Sampson who pretended to be a man to serve in the Revolutionary army) had this to say about our conference call and P4P members, “These were people who had read and thought about my novel on levels far beyond plot and character. It felt like the kind of conversation we need to have as a country.”
Politics for the People authors find the discussions unusual both in the depth of the dialogue and in the diversity of the participants. They often tell me that we ask questions that they have never been asked before and they thank me for the P4P experience.
Our members (now over 335) are as diverse as the independent movement, from all walks of life, and from all racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds. P4P members range from avid readers to people who never picked up a book before joining the club. For many of our readers, P4P has introduced them to new genres and insights into history, and current events.
We have created a P4P community that is welcoming of a wide range of views, that is fun, and that supports everyone to read, grow and learn together. Tiani Coleman, the President of New Hampshire Independent Voters has said the book club "motivates me to read, contemplate and write about thought-provoking books that I likely wouldn’t find time for otherwise, helping me grow as a person and as a leader in the independent movement.”
Our selections include fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. We have had several Pulitzer Prize winning authors join us for intimate conversations about their work, including Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns); Eric Foner (Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad); Matthew Desmond (Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City); Hedrick Smith (Who Stole the American Dream? Can We Get It Back?) and Megan Marshall (Margaret Fuller: A New American Life).
Historical fiction selections like Jerome Charyn’s I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War and Alex Meyers’ Revolutionary give us a portal to experience and imagine the lives, the challenges and the circumstances of the people--both ordinary and extraordinary--who are the movers of history. P4P is an opportunity to question the notion that there is one truth or a single view of history.
How do I pick selections for Politics for the People? A mixture of recommendations, serendipity, and scouting. I look for selections that challenge conventional ways of thinking, and are written by authors we would enjoy talking with. Perhaps, most importantly, I am always reading…
I will be sharing P4P selections and reviews of other books of interest to independent-minded Americans in the months to come. If you have a book you would like to recommend for P4P, please send me a note. And please join me in the Politics for the People book club! Visit the blog and sign up to join our book reading, conversation creating independent community.