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Book Clubs of Yore

Eons ago -- before phones were cameras, before "download" was a word, before "partner" and "resource" had become verbs -- people who liked to read joined book clubs. These were not the "book clubs" as we've come to know them today: the group of friends who choose a title to read, don't actually read it, and then meet for monthly lunch and drinks. These were profit-based, publisher-created Book Clubs, offshoots of the granddaddy Book of the Month Club. And while "book club editions" receive their fair share of derision for being mass-produced and cheaply made, I recently realized that book clubs contributed to my love of reading.

Being a child of the '70s, I was fortunate enough to experience the joy of the Scholastic Book Club. This was a money-making scheme in which the Scholastic Corporation infiltrated ... sorry, partnered with schools to provide low-cost books to children. Each month, participating teachers would distribute the order forms to us students, we would pencil in the checkmarks next to the titles which sounded intriguing, we would then beg our parents for the four dollars to buy three books, and some time later our brand new paperback books would magically appear on our school desks. Having not come from a family of readers, I was overjoyed with the idea of owning a New Book which I had chosen for myself. I have no memory of the titles or authors or covers of any of the books I ordered, but occasionally a tattered children's book will come into the bookstore and I will feel a delightful tinge of recognition. Was this one of the first books I bought for myself? Did I enjoy it? I'll probably never know, but it's a comfort to think that there are unremembered stories out in the world which encouraged me to keep reading and learning.

Later, as I teetered on the brink of adolescence, I occasionally bought "Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine" from the supermarket magazine stand. On the back cover of the magazine was the perpetual ad for the Science Fiction Book Club, imploring: "Why not? Take 4 for 10 cents now." Really? Four books -- four science fiction books -- for only ten cents? And they'll send them to my home?? I couldn't pass this up. (And yes, I still had to buy four more books over the next year, but I figured I could talk my parents into it.) I will always remember with great love and contentment the first four book club editions I ordered: Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, Roger Zelazny's The Chronicles of Amber, Anne McCaffrey's The Dragonriders of Pern, and a wonderfully strange book entitled Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials. I loved the look of the these on my bookshelf, and I loved the lightweight hardback feel of these "cheaper" editions. And I loved the fact that every month, I could get another one sent to me in the mail! I was clearly a future Amazon customer in the making.

Recently in the bookstore I passed by the SciFi shelf and a glimpse of a particular bookcover stopped me in my tracks. The book was The Visitors, by award-winning writer Clifford Simak. It was a Science Fiction Book Club edition, and it was a book I had ordered for myself thirty-five years ago. Until this moment, I had forgotten everything about that book, except for the fact that the "visitors" of the title are large alien black boxes that eat trees. I'm rereading it now, enjoying not only the story but also the feel of a book club edition in my hands. It's a reminder of a time when each new book represented another world, inviting me to enter and explore. These days, the Science Fiction Book Club still exists, as do Scholastic books, but the changes brought by the internet, e-readers, Amazon, and a shifting publishing industry have altered the ways in which we acquire our books. Perhaps the closest current experience one can have to the "old school" book club is what we've worked to create with our used bookstores. The selection of titles is everchanging and never predictable, and one can continue to explore, discovering surprising treasures that could be life-altering or, at the very least, interesting and fun.

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