The reading background of Goodreads book club members: a female fiction canon?

publishedDate09 September 2019
date09 September 2019
AuthorMike Thelwall,Karen Bourrier
The reading background of
Goodreads book club members:
a female fiction canon?
Mike Thelwall
School of Mathematics and Computing,
University of Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton, UK, and
Karen Bourrier
Department of English, Faculty of Arts,
University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada
Purpose Despite the social, educational and therapeutic benefits of book clubs, little is known about which
books participants are likely to have read. In response, the purpose of this paper is to investigate the public
bookshelves of those that have joined a group within the Goodreads social network site.
Design/methodology/approach Books listed as read by members of 50 large English-language
Goodreads groups with a genre focus or other theme were compiled by author and title.
Findings Recent and youth-oriented fiction dominate the 50 books most read by book club members, whilst
almost half are works of literature frequently taught at the secondary and postsecondary level (literary
classics). Whilst J.K. Rowling is almost ubiquitous (at least 63 per cent as frequently listed as other authors in
any group, including groups for other genres), most authors, including Shakespeare (15 per cent), Goulding
(6 per cent) and Hemmingway (9 per cent), are little read by some groups. Nor are individual recent literary
prize winners or works in languages other than English frequently read.
Research limitations/implications Although these results are derived from a single popular website,
knowing more about what book club members are likely to have read should help participants, organisers
and moderators. For example, recent literary prize winners might be a good choice, given that few members
may have read them.
Originality/value This is the first large scale study of book group membersreading patterns. Whilst
typical reading is likely to vary by group theme and average age, there seems to be a mainly female canon of
about 14 authors and 19 books that Goodreads book club members are likely to have read.
Keywords Gender, Goodreads, Book groups, Fiction authors, Fiction cannon, Fiction genres,
Fiction reading, Reading groups
Paper type Research paper
Book reading groups provide a recreational, educational, social and/or therapeutic forum for
discussion. Their importance is underlined by their support by national charities, such as
through the Reading Groups for Everyone website in the UK. Book groups can operate
face-to-face or online and can be general or with a specific goal, book genre or member type.
They may be hosted by libraries, schools or other professional organisations to encourage
reading, or may be informal. The most typical, but not universal, activity is discussing a
pre-selected book. A successful book club requires careful planning to choose appropriate
books or other activities (Slezak, 2000). Informed decision making may help to ensure that a
groups benefits are widespread and long lasting. In this context, knowing which books
members are likely to have read is useful background information. A moderator might
avoid recent prize-winning books on the basis that most members would have read them, for
example. Book choice information is particularly important for large online clubs, where the
absence of face-to-face meetings could make it difficult to get informal feedback. Dissatisfied
online participants may quietly leave a club or avoid joining in response to uninteresting
books or unstimulating discussions.
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 75 No. 5, 2019
pp. 1139-1161
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/JD-10-2018-0172
Received 26 October 2018
Revised 25 February 2019
Accepted 27 February 2019
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
book club
It seems likely that both online and in-person book group members would have different
reading patterns to the general public. Joining a book group suggests a desire to reflect on
literature (e.g. Swann and Allington, 2009); this may be more salient for literary works
because they are often perceived as being more complex (e.g. Saricks, 2001), whereas others
may lack the requisite reading-group fibre(Hartley, 2002, p. 67). People who join book
groups may also have a different social demographic or more free time than typical readers
as well as being more likely to be female (e.g. McArdle, 2009; Hartley, 2002).
It is impossible to get definitive lists of the most read books of all time or for any given
year because this would require tracking sales, resales and library borrowing (e.g. Moss
and McDonald, 2004) for multiple formats. Whilst new books might attract most readers
via sales, libraries may support the reading of a larger share of older works. Various
a given period. These include newspaper lists of bestsellers using data from publishers or
bookstores as well as Amazon sales ranks. There is almost no empirical evidence about
the books read by online or offline book group members in any country. The major
exceptions are around two decades old: a survey of 350 offline UK reading groups in
19992000 and a follow-up survey of 130 of these groups in 2001 (Hartley, 2002), as well as
a North American 2001 survey of online and offline reading groups (Sedo, 2003). Although
the readers surveyed were not a formal book club, a partial exception is Janice Radways
landmark study of readers of romance in a midwestern USA city, who relied on the
recommendations of one well-read saleswoman (Radway, 1984). Partly because of
the difficulty of gathering information about everyday readers, there has been little
scholarship in literary studies (e.g. in reader-response criticism) that systematically
analyses the choices of contemporary everyday readers, although there is some relevant
library science research (reviewed below). To start to address this shortfall, this paper
analyses types of books read by members of popular Goodreads groups, irrespective of
whether the reading was part of their group activity. The social website Goodreads was
chosen because it is a popular site for book readers and contains a unique public register
of books read by members.
Book clubs
For this paper, a book club or reading group is any collection of online or offline individuals
that organise around books primarily to discuss them. This includes traditional book
groups that meet periodically online, whether groups of friends or more official sets
organised by schools or libraries. It also includes online groups that choose a book theme
(e.g. Victorian literature) and have a forum in which the books can be discussed. A common
activity is likely to be periodically choosing individual books to discuss. The definition
excludes book clubsthat involve no element of discussion, such as publisherssales offers
that involve buying a minimum number of books each year (book sales clubs). The
definition also excludes media-driven mass reading events (Fuller and Sedo, 2013) that
involve large number of people reading a book and following others discussing it rather
than directly participating.
Book clubs have multiple functions, presumably affecting the books that members read.
They may aim to improve reading ability (Kong and Fitch, 2002; Raphael and McMahon,
1994) because discussion aids comprehension (Broughton, 2002; Murphy et al., 2009). They
may be therapeutic (Hammer et al., 2017; Lang and Brooks, 2015; Muellenbach, 2018;
Rimkeit and Claridge, 2017), for rehabilitation (Hartley and Turvey, 2009; Wiltse, 2011), for
understanding religious messages or social issues (Clarke and Nolan, 2014; Gramstrup,
2017), educational (Kan et al., 2015; Scourfield and Taylor, 2014), a networking aid (Alsop,
2015) or may be social or recreational (Clarke et al., 2017; Long, 2003). The importance of

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