As an avid reader, I’d always romanticized the idea of belonging to a book club. Reading was always such a solitary activity for me (and for most people), but the idea of a shared experience reading and gathering with close friends to discuss a title every month warmed my heart. Having recently started a book club with friends, I can admit now that it’s not as fun as I had always imagined. Sure, it was great the first month when I got to choose the title, but the following months weren’t as thrilling, especially when the club members didn’t make the selections that *I* would have. Alas, my little club has chugged along and so far survived my attempts to influence the selections and sabotage the voting process.
The idea of a celebrity book club is ingenious, really. Inviting your fans to read along with you creates a sense of closeness and intimacy that usually bleeds into the other aspects of your career. It can also provide an amazing platform for writers to promote their work and reach audiences that they may not have before.
When COVID-19 lockdown went into place, we all longed for a sense of community while stuck in our homes, and quite a few people fled to the comfort of a virtual celebrity book club. The new golden age of the celebrity book club is upon us, and I thought I’d give an overview of the big names in this realm, as well as some smaller clubs that I enjoy, and take a look at their selections and the ways they utilize their platforms to promote literature and reading.
Before we dive in, I want to mention that I will also be taking a look at a significant cultural pivot point, George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, and how each of these clubs changed (or didn’t) their selection process. It’s no secret that celebrity book clubs have historically catered to white, suburban women, but half of the book clubs I’ve chosen to take a look at below are the work of Black women, though some of them share that same audience.
No conversation about celebrity book clubs can begin without Oprah. What initially began in 1996 as a recurring segment on her daily talk show, has grown into a behemoth and a publishing kingmaker. Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 started in 2012 and continues on to this day with an Apple TV series, though with less frequent picks.
Oprah’s Book Club anoints near-instant bestsellers. Whether or not you are tapped into the club and its selections, you are still influenced by its power. Books like She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb, White Oleander by Janet Finch, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III, and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen are all regarded as modern classics, but they first rose to popularity as selections by Oprah.
Oprah revolutionized publishing, proving that a celebrity endorsement is a powerful marketing tool. Add to that an entire episode dedicated to the book selected, usually featuring an interview with the author (though her occasional picks from the literary canon didn’t always have the luxury of a living writer to join in), and you have an entire ecosystem that has, at times, supported the publishing industry during dwindling sales.
Oprah was also a pioneer in promoting the work of Black writers, particularly Toni Morrison. Even though she had already enjoyed an illustrious career (including winning a Nobel Prize in 1993), she had her place in the popular canon cemented when Song of Solomon was Oprah’s second selection in 1996, followed by Paradise, The Bluest Eye, and Sula over the years. The 2.0 iteration of her club has continued this tradition, not only selecting fiction from prominent Black writers like Tayari Jones, Colson Whitehead, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and James McBride, but also selecting nonfiction focused on the Black experience in the United States, like Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, Becoming by Michelle Obama, and The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton.
Oprah rarely misses with a selection, which is why it becomes a news story in and of itself when she does. When James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces was revealed to have large fabrications, Oprah was forced into damage control mode and famously invited Frey onto her show and admonished him and his publisher for their dishonesty. Oprah was again forced to do damage control when her January 2020 selection of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins came under intense scrutiny due to the white author Cummins writing about the Mexican immigrant experience. The book still became one of the year’s top sellers, though Oprah’s reputation did take a small hit from the incident. You can read more about the process of American Dirt‘s selection and what it says about the publishing industry in this amazing New York Magazine piece by Lila Shapiro.
In 2017, Reese Witherspoon leveraged her immense fame and growing reputation as Hollywood’s resident book worm and launched Reese’s Book Club through her lifestyle brand Hello Sunshine, and I haven’t known peace since.
Many of my friends will tell you that Reese’s Book Club occupies a large space in my brain, and I have frequently referred to it as “my nemesis.” Let me be clear, I love Reese Witherspoon. However, I cannot say the same for her book club. I’ll get more into that later.
Reese’s Book Club enjoyed a serendipitous launch, striking gold with its first few selections. Starting with her first pick, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, Reese would follow that with an unblemished run of major bestsellers: The Alice Network by Alice Quinn, The Lying Game by Ruth Ware, and Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. While the club’s stated mission is to highlight books centered on women with no specific formula to her monthly picks, this initial run of four selections created the mold that most of her picks would follow: Popular fiction, historical fiction, and thrillers.
Sometimes I like to wonder what would have become of Reese’s Book Club had those first four selections not hit the way they did with the general public. Her place as heir apparent to Oprah’s Book Club was cemented with subsequent picks over the years, including Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Untamed by Glennon Doyle, and the grandmother of them all, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, which just enjoyed its 128th consecutive week on the New York Times Bestseller List.
So what, you may ask, is my beef with Reese’s Book Club? Aside from the genre pattern present in her picks, her selections follow another, more insidious pattern: they’re mostly written by white women. Since its launch, 38 of the 51 monthly selections (including her young adult picks, which she started in 2020) were written by white women. When Black Lives Matters protests swept the country in late May 2020, Reese showed her hand by notably making two selections for the month of June: The Guest List, a thriller by the white author Lucy Foley, and I’m Still Here, a memoir by Black social justice advocate Austin Channing Brown.
In the months following, the club’s selections continued to highlight books by authors of color, before returning to all white authors in November 2020. This problem isn’t necessarily Witherspoon’s fault, the publishing industry as a whole under-represents authors of color. That being said, what I find so frustrating is that Reese’s selections are books that have always had a marketing machine behind them, simply because they are written by white authors. What Oprah knew about her book club is that it’s an immense platform to introduce audiences to new perspectives, including and especially Black, Brown, and Asian writers. Reese has yet to use her platform in that way, instead choosing to spotlight fairly generic thrillers and historical fiction. Over time, her selections have started to feel less personal, like she is going through the motions and putting her stamp on anything that will become a bestseller even without her endorsement.
Next month will mark the two year anniversary of the launch of Today Show host Jenna Bush-Hager’s book club, Read With Jenna. What was initially started to capitalize on the growing book club trend quickly became one of the most popular celebrity book clubs around.
Read With Jenna’s selections tend to veer towards literary fiction more than the popular fiction of Reese’s Book Club, including titles like The Dutch House by Ann Patchett and Writers & Lovers by Lily King. What is surprising to me is how much this club’s selection aligned with my own reading taste. Oftentimes, I would go to the bookstore to purchase a new book I was excited about, only to discover a “Read With Jenna” sticker on the cover. The overlap of our tastes led me to feel warmer towards this club as time went on. Now, it’s one of the few that I wait to see what their selections are each month.
When June 2020 rolled around, Read With Jenna didn’t really need to pivot towards selecting more diverse authors. They had been doing that all along, though I’m sure having the infrastructure of the Today Show’s communications team behind you helps with making well-thought-out choices. Even so, while some clubs picked books from withers of color for a month or two following the Black Lives Matter protests, Read With Jenna continued to highlight diverse books throughout the year, recently selecting Mateo Askaripour’s debut Black Buck last month, and its first non-new release, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in December 2020.
Cynics might view this as intentional on their part, however I’d argue that it’s a positive side-effect of the pool of books they are choosing from. Literary fiction is more ahead of the curve than other genres are when it comes to diverse storytelling. Selections like Black Buck, Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, and A Burning by Megha Majumdar all had significant buzz building for them prior to their release, and having a large platform like Read With Jenna launched them to bestseller status.
Read With Jenna hasn’t been without controversy, including backlash over a print run of The Bluest Eye having the club’s sticker placed on its cover, but it still serves as something of a model for other celebrity book clubs. While its selections can at times feel impersonal (a symptom of any book club that exclusively selects new releases), the club understands how to utilize its large platform to introduce diverse stories and writers to its audience.
Each of the three previous clubs had leveraged large existing platforms to promote (mostly) new releases. Noname Book Club, the brainchild of rising rapper Noname, has a different aim. Started in July 2019, Noname Book Club has created a nationwide community promoting fiction and nonfiction written by people of color. On top of the, the club strongly encourages readers to buy their books from local, independent bookstores or to check them out from their local libraries, complete with “fuck you Amazon” language on their website. This message of supporting local bookstores stems from Noname’s own experience of having her mother’s bookstore close due to the rise of Amazon.
For white audiences, this might be the first they’ve heard of this club, but it has quickly built a large following because it was created around the sense of community. The website provides guides to local independent bookstores and how to create a local chapter of Noname Book Club. Each January, the club promotes “Library Card Registration Day” to encourage followers to discover everything their local libraries have to offer.
When other books clubs pivoted towards promoting Black writers in June 2020, Noname just pivoted towards selecting texts specific to prison abolition and Black liberation, selecting 14 books for August.
In less than two years, Noname Book Club has grown to become one of the most remarkable reading communities online because “community” is the foundation. Many book clubs are used as marketing tools for publishing, but Noname is dedicated to the act of reading and discussion, understanding that someone’s ability to purchase a book shouldn’t be a limiting factor to their engagement in the club.
When I was doing research for this rundown, Belletrist was the only celebrity book club featured here that I had not heard of previously. Started in 2017 by actress Emma Roberts (niece of Julia, even if at this point in her long career that feels reductive) and her friend Karah Preiss, Belletrist can best be described as Reese’s Book Club run by Brooklyn Millennials, with a Los Angeles aesthetic. At its heart, Belletrist is simply a lifestyle brand, but it’s a lifestyle brand with great taste in books.
Primarily selecting literary fiction written by women, Belletrist’s monthly selections are the same books you would find on an independent bookstore’s Staff Picks shelf. With books by Joan Didion, Eve Babitz, Carmen Maria Machado, and Brit Bennett, Belletrist has a distinct “vibe” that it is going for.
In addition to their monthly picks, Belletrist send out email newsletters that are a goldmine for curious readers, with features on what writers and influencers are currently reading. On their social media feeds, their weekly STACKED series is best described as “MTV Cribs for books” and features writers and others giving tours of their home bookshelves, providing insight into their tastes and influences. Like Noname Book Club, Belletrist also emphasizes the importance of supporting local bookstores, and each month they highlight an independent bookstore along with their monthly reading selection, encouraging readers to order that month’s book from that store.
While it doesn’t have the marketing firepower that Oprah, Reese, or Jenna have, Belletrist has carved out its own niche in the celebrity book club world, becoming a pleasant discovery for me.
The last club I’m going to highlight came into my life in a completely organic way. One afternoon, while browsing Instagram, I noticed that an author I follow, (and love) Hari Kunzru, was live with Amerie. I had only known Amerie from “One Thing” and seeing her live with Kunzru felt like some kind of user error. Well, that’s how I discovered that Amerie’s Book Club existed, and she just happened to have chosen Kunzru’s newest novel Red Pill for that month’s discussion, and since then I’ve been enamored by her club.
What stands out most about Amerie’s Book Club is that there’s seemingly no method to her picks. There’s no marketing machine, there’s no special stickers. Each month, she selects a book that she wants to read, and because of that there’s a palpable sense of joy and passion for reading when engaging in the monthly discussions.
The selections tend to lean towards literary fiction, but occasional offbeat picks like sci-fi classic Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler and recent horror novel The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (one of my favorites from last year) add an interesting twist to the stereotypical book club selection. At the end of each month, she holds an interactive discussion about the book on her Instagram, with occasional author interviews as well.
While it certainly isn’t the largest celebrity book club out there, it’s the one I have the most fondness for, and proof that the best clubs don’t need to have a gimmick or marketing money, only passionate readers at the heart.