The coolest book clubs in town

Emma Watson, Noname, Roxane Gay – and even Barack Obama – are some of the names giving book clubs a boost

Image: Bert Hardy/Getty Images

Arguably, the celebrity book club first began in 1996, with Oprah, when the talk show host announced that she would be reading The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard as the first book. The club became so popular and increased publishers’ profits so buoyantly that the literary world became possessed by “the Oprah effect”. When the host chose Anna Karenina, for instance, the publisher had to print 800,000 extra copies. Twenty-three years later, and with the exception of a few controversies (remember Jonathan Franzen’s declaration that his nomination for The Corrections didn’t fit with his place in the “high-art literary world”, and that Oprah’s approval would repel his male readers), the club is still going strong. It’s also been joined by a host of other celebrity reading clubs. 

Emma Watson’s online feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf, is currently reading Beloved by Toni Morrison
Emma Watson’s online feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf, is currently reading Beloved by Toni Morrison | Image: Miguel Rojo/AFP/Getty Images

Some collections are as simple as an insouciant post on social media at the end of every year (Barack Obama), while others (Emma Roberts and Reese Witherspoon) have websites, Instagram and Twitter accounts, all dedicated to their reads. Roberts was able to score an interview with the American essayist Joan Didion for her literary site Belletrist. 

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But what if your reading habits are more niche? The following clubs have been credited with curating a more diverse and challenging library. And we’re all holding out for when the US comedian, actress and author Mindy Kaling makes her “ideal book club” – as described to The New York Times – a reality: “My book club would be held on Sunday afternoons. Dress code: warm-weather black tie. Cocktails from 3 to 3.30. Chitchat from 3.30 to 4. Personal drama from 4 to 5. Book discussion from 5 to 5.30. Early dinner from 5.30 to 7. Then everyone goes home”. 

The reading list of Noname’s Book Club includes Faces & Masks by Eduardo Galeano
The reading list of Noname’s Book Club includes Faces & Masks by Eduardo Galeano | Image: Press Association

Emma Watson

Emma Watson founded her online feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf, in 2016 when she became a UN Women goodwill ambassador. “As part of my work with UN Women, I have started reading as many books and essays about equality as I can get my hands on,” Watson said of her motivation. 

Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys was the first book discussed on the HBO-aired Roxane Gay’s Book Club
Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys was the first book discussed on the HBO-aired Roxane Gay’s Book Club

Aimed squarely at young Emma Watson fans and fourth-wave feminists, the picks range from foundational classics like The Handmaid’s Tale and Maya Angelou’s Mom & Me & Mom, to books by contemporary, international writers like Min Jin Lee, whose novel Pachinko explores what life is like for Koreans living in Japan. The club doesn’t do meet-ups, but discussion between Watson, the moderators and members takes place through a comment thread on the online book database Goodreads. Watson often posts video interviews with the authors on YouTube – most recently, she’s spoken to Reni Eddo Lodge of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race and Instagram poetry sensation Rupi Kaur.

Currently reading: Beloved by Toni Morrison. goodreads.com/genres/our-shared-shelf.

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Noname 

Some have compared lyrical rap sensation Noname and her book club to Oprah’s, owing to their shared focus on writers of colour. But Noname has been quick to counter that impression: while Oprah’s book club is wrapped up in a big Apple TV deal, her club is based on “community”, not commercialism. 

She takes a strong “no Amazon” stance, advocating instead independent bookstores owned by people of colour (she lists stockists on her site) and local libraries. She runs book club meet-ups all over the US, operates a lively Twitter account (“Reading material for the homies” is the bio) and has a range of Noname’s Bookclub merch, including tote bags, bookmarks and T-shirts. Every month, she nominates two books for members to choose between – though of course they can read both. Picks include The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W Twitty and Faces in the Crowd, a novel by Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli that follows a New York writer obsessed with an ill-fated Mexican poet called Gilberto Owen.

Currently reading: Faces & Masks by Eduardo Galeano and Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli. nonamebooks.com.

Roxane Gay

“This is a book club,” announces Roxane Gay in the intro to her new Vice News, HBO-aired series Roxane Gay’s Book Club. “We’re gonna drink some alcohol. We’re gonna talk about some books. We’re gonna get a little petty.” In each episode of the talk show, Gay invites three guests to discuss her chosen book over cocktails, with the conversation punctuated by short readings from the chosen book. So far she’s had the likes of Morgan Jerkins, journalist and bestselling author, hip hop artist Mike Eagle, and writer and Design Matters podcast host Debbie Millman. Colson Whitehead’s new novel The Nickel Boys, which tells the story of a young boy at a reform school in Jim Crow‑era Florida, was the first book up for discussion, while the second instalment centred on Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson, a tale of unexpected teenage pregnancy that pulls together two families from different social classes. Hers is a visceral discussion. She asks questions such as: “What was your gut reaction to the book?” and “Why did you keep reading?” and provokes heated debate.

Episodes available on Vice News, youtube.com/vicenews.

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