I don’t remember the first book I read. But the first book that I do remember I remember very well.
I was born in 1958. And I am sure my early book world was filled with classics. Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat” was published in 1957. “Happy Birthday to You!” in 1959. “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” in 1960. I remember these books, but only from reading them to my own children.
The first book I remember reading was called “Dangerous Island.” Written by Helen Mather-Smith Mindlin and published in 1956 by Dodd, Mead & Co., it was perfect for a young Midwestern boy.
Three kids — Frank, his sister Dorothy and their friend Pug — build a small raft on the Atlantic shore. They get swept out to sea, find an island with a cave and drawings and treasure, and then the island begins to sink! Oh no! They are rescued at the last moment by the brave crew of a Coast Guard helicopter.
I am sure this book is responsible for my love of sailing stories and the Coast Guard. This book was Indiana Jones long before Indiana Jones. A trio of friends in danger? A bit of Harry Potter there. This book made me a reader.
What strikes me now, however, is how this book came into my hands. It was published as a selection of the Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club.
I’m not sure how it came into our house a few years later, but in the “Special Notice to Book Club Members” inside the book, it reads: “It was chosen especially for our members by the Weekly Reader Selection Board after careful consideration of hundreds of other books for girls and boys.” In other words, it was a curated selection.
I’m sure the politics of curation in 1956 would come under question now, and that’s good news, evidence of a healthy cultural evolution. But the fact that there was a book club at all still sparks joy. I mentioned this club to friends, and for those who remembered it, the response was heart-core nostalgia.
Literature is the most solitary art form. It’s the only one where the creation and the consumption are internal. So perhaps it makes sense that we seek out others to share what’s going on in our heads. We desire community, always.
One of my deepest joys is when someone looks at a book on my shelf and says “Oh, I read this one!” We begin to talk and, at that moment, we are bound.
Some book clubs are only two people. Some are a great deal larger.
A few years ago, the Department of English where I teach noticed students asking for classes where they could “just talk about books.” These were not English majors — these were biologists and chemists and business majors.
They did not have the time in their schedules for deep dives into theory. So, we created a course called Book Clubs.
Blake Orlandi, COO of Pride Tree Holdings, which owns Book of the Month and BookSpan, which owns the Literary Guild (which acquired Quality Paperback Book Club), tells me that mail-order book clubs are returning to their former glory as e-commerce.
Before the internet, before Barnes & Noble and Amazon, mail-order book clubs had more than a million members. Founded in 1926, Book of the Month was essentially a curatorial service. But then it moved to the everything for everyone model and, well, the future happened.
Relaunched in 2016 targeting millennials, it’s growing again.
There is something wonderful about reading together and sharing what sense your head and heart have made of the story. Even the simplest story can lead to nuanced readings. Sharing and discussing do not need to lead to agreement, but they will always lead to patience and understanding.
W. Scott Olsen is a writer and teacher in Moorhead, Minn.