Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2743
Book Club

by Andrew Boyd

Today, a club. The University of Houstonís College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The remnants of a party were everywhere, my colleague told me. Heíd returned from a hiking trip to find his house, well, spotless and well stocked: three unopened bottles of wine, three sparkling Italian mineral water, unfinished gazpacho, quiche, and expensive cheese in the refrigerator, and a massive salad bowl heíd never seen before. It could mean only one thing: book club.

book club graphic

Itís safe to say book discussion clubs have been around for as long as books. The details vary, but the basic premise doesnít change much from club to club: read a book or books; discuss. Some book clubs focus on a particular topic, like U.S. history. Others are more free-wheeling. Whatever the chosen book, readers are encouraged not just to read, but to read critically and come prepared to share their thoughts and insights.

The modern book club traces its roots to the Enlightenment and the literary salons of Paris. Here, men and women met to discuss not only books but any topic considered intellectually stimulating. Expanding the mind was an important part of a book club gathering.

Since that time women have been as closely associated with book clubs as men, if not more so. And itís really no surprise. Most universities barred women from attending until late in the nineteenth century. Early book clubs served as an opportunity for women to engage in meaningful discourse when other outlets simply didnít exist. Men had the workplace and the pub. Women had the home.

women reading painting

Book clubs have always been a mix of social as well as intellectual activity, but the emphasis has shifted over the years. Before the age of radio, television, and the Internet, reading and talking were the primary sources of information exchange. Book clubs introduced people to breathtaking new ideas, like an explorerís trip to Africa or a newfangled theory called evolution. Book clubs were a catalyst for discovery.

Today weíre drowning in a sea of information. Discovering new ideas isnít an issue; itís making time to assimilate them.

Thatís what the modern home book club does. It forces time to be set aside for one particular topic in some depth. But it does more. It pulls people away from the one-way flow of media delivered information and thrusts them into a two way exchange. Book clubbers both take and give. Human interaction is as important as the information itself.

So itís no surprise my friend returned to find the vestiges of an elaborate social ritual that goes by the name book club, though he did confide a continued uneasiness. When he asked his wife how the gathering had gone, he didnít get many details. ďAfter all,Ē she informed him, ďwhat happens in book club stays in book club.Ē

Iím Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where weíre interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Notes and references:

Salon (gathering). From the Wikipedia Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salon_%28gathering%29. Accessed September 20, 2011.

The picture of the salon is from Wikimedia Commons. The remaining picture is from a U.S. government Web site.

This episode was first aired on September 22, 2011

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2011 by John H. Lienhard.