Date of Award

5-2014

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

English

Major Professor

Amy J. Elias

Committee Members

Kirsten Benson, Janet Atwill, Stergios Botzakis

Abstract

This study of the Books-N-Wine club in Knoxville, Tennessee participates in a growing body of research on reading communities. Since the 1980s, researchers have investigated book clubs as social-intellectual phenomena whose history dates back to eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Intersecting with the development of the public sphere and even fueling concrete social movements, book clubs comprise a “shadow tradition of literature.” Current research suggests that contemporary clubs continue to advance this “shadow tradition” and have the potential to teach and transform their constituencies. Several areas remain unexplored in research on book clubs, including the ways in which particular categories of clubs are identified and described, the ways in which clubs operate in specific contexts, and the research methods that yield the most useful data.

To produce new knowledge on book clubs, this study is framed by theories from multiple disciplines as well as popular publications on book clubs, and investigates one club in Knoxville through observations of meetings and interviews with individual members. Findings suggest that Books-N-Wine is a situated, contextualized practice, exhibiting significant participation, on the part of its members, in other spheres. It is possible that this book club and other ones are comprised of “everyday activists” who negotiate among themselves the values and behaviors for use in domestic, professional, and other counterspheres.

Findings also suggest that researchers must reflect on their impact on the clubs they study and should address a crisis of terminology that emerges when describing the phenomena they discover. In addition, because book clubs are complex practices, studies are best informed by multiple, rather than singular, disciplines and by published material that book clubs themselves produce. This study concludes by recommending that the study be extended in the following ways: (1) refining its theoretical and methodological underpinnings, (2) expanding the case study design to a study that compares several clubs, and (3) extending the time frame for collecting data.

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