Book clubs as public history
16 February 2021 – Evan Faulkenbury
On the evening of November 12, 2020, during a live Zoom call with seven other people, I spoke rapidly about history, excitedly displayed some photographs, and waved my arms around. That’s my usual teaching demeanor—whether in person or online—but I wasn’t teaching undergrads. I was participating in my local book club.
Since January 2019, the History Buffs’ Book Club, as we dubbed ourselves, has met on the second Thursday of every month through our local public library (except for a few months off because of the pandemic). Besides myself, none of the members are practicing public historians, but through casual conversations with one librarian who shared a love of history, we decided to try out a history-specific book club and see what happened. Our success led me into two more book clubs. Back in October 2020, with help from history department colleagues and an undergraduate student, I started a virtual book discussion for the SUNY Cortland community on Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. And around the same time, I started attending a book discussion at my local church on Lenny Duncan’s Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.
Until recently, I did not think of book clubs as public history. Public history is expansive and includes museums, historic sites, films, oral history, preservation, and so much more. But book clubs? After being asked to consider where in my community public history took place—even if not under the label of “public history”—I thought of these history-themed book clubs. We don’t create exhibits, lead walking tours, or place historical markers, but we meet together outside of traditional classrooms, collaborate and share authority with one another, interpret primary and secondary sources, discuss how history impacts our everyday lives, and consider how historical memory plays a role in our town, country, and world. Through our discussions, we also consider how learning history is but a first step to taking action in pursuit of a better society. That sounds like public history to me.
The History Buffs’ Book Club has a core group of about a dozen people living in Cortland, New York, who love history, books, and talking about history and books. Reading can be exhilarating for those who are passionate about books, but typically, it’s a solitary pastime. Book clubs have a long history, but history-specific book clubs are uncommon. A history book club connects people who have a shared interest, forges new friendships, makes use of a public library, and generates new ideas for how history impacts our present world. Instead of a traditional book club that might have all members read the same book ahead of a meeting, we choose a common theme and select different books. For example, one month, instead of everyone reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit, we all selected different books about the history of journalism. We decided on this format because it gives members greater autonomy in picking books, and when we meet, we learn about a handful of books and histories instead of just one. We aren’t too strict about what “counts” as a history book, and we even allow for historical fiction. That way, sometimes, our conversations include the kinds of evidence used in the book, or the author’s argument. When we meet, we each talk about the particular book we read, discuss what we found most interesting, ask questions, and learn other points of view. And we go off on a lot of tangents. But that’s part of the fun with this group—and that’s just the point. When appropriate, public history should be fun, enjoyable, and a shared activity.
Following the summer of 2020, SUNY Cortland’s history department wanted to do something meaningful to help our campus community reckon with America’s history of racism. We batted around the idea of a book discussion, and we settled on Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning as our text. As a history department, we felt it necessary to take the lead on facilitating discussions about the long history of racism in the United States. We believed that taking a longer view of this history was crucial to accomplishing a collective antiracist mindset on campus. While our university started the semester in a hybrid format with a mixture of classes online and in-person, we concluded that an in-person event would be unwise amid the Covid-19 pandemic. We decided on the videoconferencing software Microsoft Teams, and once we purchased copies of the book to lend out (Stamped from the Beginning is also currently available for free on Spotify as an audiobook), we organized our first discussion session for October 27 at 8:00 p.m. We advertised to all SUNY Cortland students, faculty, and staff, as well as to our alumni network, welcoming everyone to participate in a discussion of Kendi’s book. The response was positive, and for our first meeting, about fifty people attended. That would probably be too many for a virtual book discussion, but in the following weeks, the group has congealed into a more sustainable group of around fifteen people. As a group, we decided to read two chapters each week and meet every Tuesday evening to discuss. This slow-burn has gone well, and it has allowed us to zoom (no pun intended) in on parts of the book that we might ordinarily miss if reading it on our own. We structure our conversations around two questions: what did you find most interesting in these two chapters, and do you see any connections in the present? This public history book club has been provocative. In general, talking through Stamped from the Beginning has motivated us as part of SUNY Cortland’s wider community to identify and speak out against racism.
In October 2020, I joined a new book discussion at Homer Congregational Church. As a progressive church, we’re committed to fighting prejudice, but we’re far from perfect. Led by one of our members, Quinn Caldwell, we read a chapter a week of Lenny Duncan’s Dear Church. Duncan calls out white supremacy in all its forms within the church, many of which we had not realized could pertain to us—a bunch of liberals in an open and affirming congregation. History infuses Duncan’s writing, and he gets specific about what churches can do to rectify injustice. Our church originated in 1801, and to our disgrace, our congregation was unfriendly to the abolitionist movement. We also recognize that our church sits on indigenous land and that our church founders were part of a land grab that swept what is now upstate New York in the decades after the American Revolution. We felt history motivating us to act. We’ve raised ideas—such as reparations and acknowledging the land on which we meet—about what we can do to reckon with the past, own up to injustice, and create a more equitable future. As a form of public history, this book club hasn’t just been about learning, but also about taking action based on historical wrongs.
So, do you want to start a history book club in your community? Go for it! A few tips: (1) organize a history book club through an institution you already know well, such as your local public library; (2) send out a broad advertisement—you may be surprised by who signs up and who becomes the most passionate members; (3) create a timeframe and format that works for everyone, and even if the subject matter is serious, keep the book club informal and friendly; (4) share authority with members, perhaps having others write questions or lead discussions based on Facilitated Dialogues crafted by the National Park Service; and (5) while you don’t have to lecture everyone on public history, let public history infuse your book club. By that I mean don’t just learn about history, but plan ways that you can collectively act on that history to create a more just society. Action and shared authority are at the heart of public history practice, and that’s why I think book clubs fit. They’re also just plain fun.
~Evan Faulkenbury is an associate professor of history at SUNY Cortland in upstate New York. He teaches undergraduate courses on public history and United States history, and he facilitates public history internships. He is the author of Poll Power: The Voter Education Project and the Movement for the Ballot in the American South (UNC Press, 2019).