It used to be you were nobody unless you were on TV. Then it was, you’re nobody unless you have your own TV show. Now you’re nobody unless you have a book club.
Of course, it’s a great thing that celebrities are reading, or at least pretending to read, and most of the ones we mention below seem sincere in their recommendations.
The clubs seem to break down into two large categories. Women lead a bunch and lean toward fiction. Men lead the rest and lean toward non-fiction. That’s a crude distinction but it catches most, with notable exceptions. We’ve sized up every one of them for your convenience.
The mother of all celebrity book clubs is fronted by Oprah, who reads in a tree. You can find it on Oprah.com. It is a continuation of the books coverage she pioneered on her old television show and at the moment it is doing nothing – nothing!—but promoting her friend Michelle Obama’s Becoming, with a video recommendation, a sales offer, and an eight-part author interview. If you’re determined, you can find another eighty-odd selections on Oprah’s site which, apart from an admirable concentration of African-American authors, are mostly banal (ten-year-old Eckhart Tolle?).
Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine is the hottest club at the moment, with eighteen million Instagram followers. Reese had that photo (top) of her charming, propped-out self (bare feet, reading glasses, mug of coffee, Labrador retriever, and Lara Prescott’s Cold War spy/love story The Secrets We Kept) uploaded the very day of the book’s release (September 3). Apparently, she can read on her steps holding the book in one hand and petting Hank with the other. More on Reese later.
Florence Welch of Florence of the Machine is behind the Between Two Books club, where the choices, ranging from classic literature to contemporary poetry, are so idiosyncratic that they have to be authentic and personal. Two recent books selections were Read and Riot: A Pussy Riot Guide to Activism by Nadya Tolokonnikova, and The Importance of Music To Girls, a novel by Lavinia Greenland. The club is on temporary hiatus but before signing off Florence did her followers the courtesy of tweeting out all forty-three of her recommendations since 2012.
Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame, another step reader, runs Our Shared Shelf, which started in 2016 with Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road and has continued to the feminist vein with Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.
Another child actress, Emma Roberts, who reads on the street, allows you to sign up and get emails from her Belletrist club. Her choices tend to the predictable, well-reviewed fiction that shows up in a lot of top-ten lists including, most recently, Sarah Elaine Smith’s Marilou is Everywhere and C.J. Hauser’s Family of Origin.
Jenna Bush Hager, who reads with her mom, began #ReadWithJenna as part of her work on the Today Show. It seems a way for the show to stay on top of some interesting content and get interviews with popular writers and readers including Melinda Gates, Tim McGraw, and Olivia Wilde. This month’s pick is The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall.
Sarah Jessica Parker, another woman who reads on the steps, is serious about literature. She has her own imprint with Hogarth Press and has partnered with the American Library Association’s Book Club Central (of which she is honorary chairwoman) for her book club. SJP has a social conscience. Typical of her selections is Heartland: A Memoir of Working and Being Broke In the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh.
Felicia Day, who reads on a ladder, played Vi on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and has enjoyed a wide-ranging and interesting career as an actress, writer, and producer. She’s behind the Vaginal Fantasy Book Club which is actually a web video series or, in her own words, a monthly “gathering of wine, women and smut” in which a new genre romance novel is discussed.
Sarah Michelle Gellar uses the hashtag #SMGbookclub but mostly posts her recent reads amid all the crap on her twitter feed. Most recent choice: A Window Opens by Elizabeth Egan. Shonda Rhimes, the mega-producer, options books for television series and has a huge book section on her Shondaland website. Mindy Kaling’s book-heavy Instagram feed is worth a follow. Roxanne Gay, essayist and author of the best-selling Bad Feminist, also regularly posts her book recommendations on Medium.
Lena Dunham of Girls fame recently closed her book club. And one of the oddest book-club couples, Kim Kardashian (who reads in a bathing suit) and Chrissy Teigan, have also called it quits. Read about it here.
Before turning to the men, we should note that most of these so-called book clubs, with the notable exception of Vaginal Fantasy, are merely shared reading lists tricked out as book clubs. There is not a lot of interaction with other readers beyond posting and tweeting. Which is fine, we suppose. There is no venue large enough to accommodate the Hello Sunshine crowd.
Recently retired Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck shows that men, too, can read on steps. Described by the Washington Post as “the NFL’s unofficial librarian,” he runs an actual book club and displays a wide-ranging curiosity in his choices. Recent selections include Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari: Overland From Cairo to Cape Town, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and the young adult novel Save Me A Seat, by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan. Luck is a pure reading enthusiast with no evident agenda beyond sharing his passion.
Late-night talk-show host Jimmy Fallon reads in Shaq’s lap. Like Jenna Bush, he works for NBC which seems to have recognized there’s good content in books. Over the last several months, Fallon has fronted The Tonight Show Summer Reads which features best-selling fiction. Viewers are asked to vote on his choices. Most popular was Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane. Fallon, incidentally, has some literary cred. He’s the author of six books, including three children’s books.
PewDiePie, the Swedish YouTuber who reads in a gaming chair and made Time’s list of The World’s 100 Most Influential People (seriously?) on the basis of his bro-army video game reviews, got in trouble for sharing some purportedly (I can’t be bothered to check) racist views with his massive following and has been trying to rehabilitate himself with a series of book broadcasts, including this one on Plato.
Bill Gates, who reads at home in his library, doesn’t have a formal book club but he has one of the last interesting blogs in the world. You can follow him behind the counter at a Dairy Queen with Warren Buffett (he tells you what Buffett and the DQ Blizzard have in common), and read him in conversation with a technologist who left the field to help the poor. He also recommends a lot of books. He favors non-fiction, including Michael Beschloss’ Presidents of War, Jared Diamond’s Upheaval, and Rose George’s Nine Pints.
Barack Obama (who takes his daughters to bookstores like a real father) shared eighty-six book recommendations during his presidency. (If one of the busiest men in the world can find time to read, why can’t the rest of us?) He read mostly non-fiction in office. This summer, he’s been reading more memoir and fiction. Two weeks ago he released a list with a trio of memoirs, including Hope Jahren’s wonderful Lab Girl, Stephanie Land’s Maid, and a third by Mrs. Obama.
Warren Buffett, who reads five hundred pages a day (!), and his investing partner Charlie Munger run an informal book club. Sometime they share recommendations in their annual shareholders’ letter, sometimes in interviews. Their lists are comprised of business books although Buffett has also enjoyed Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and Katharine Graham’s Personal History.
For our money, Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg (who, like Reese, reads with his dog) has the most impressive reading list of all. Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. William James’ Writings 1902-1910. Henry Kissinger’s World Order. Cixin Liu’s Hugo Award-winning The Three-Body Problem. Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge. Matt Ridley’s Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. Peter Huber’s Orwell’s Revenge: The 1984 Palimpsest. On it goes. Rather than link to each book, we’ll link to all of them here.
Zuckerberg’s selections remind us to mention a huge and well-organized business book club that goes by the name of The CEO Library. It proactively asks celebrity business leaders, the likes of Elon Musk and Arianna Huffington, what they’re reading. It tells you which books are recommended most often by CEOs, and breaks the selections down by subject: best leadership books, best books on the future of work, best books on stoicism, best Stephen King novels. A handy resource, especially for business readers.
A final note. Writers and publishers hoping to see their books on these lists are bound to be disappointed. Most selections are either plucked from best-seller lists or reflect the idiosyncratic choices of people like Florence Welch and Andrew Luck who know what they like and won’t be swayed by publicists.
The most strategic selections are those of Reese Witherspoon, whose people attended a book gathering in New York a while back. According to our stellar publicist Sarah Miniaci, who was in the crowd, Hello Sunshine only accepts recommendations from agents at the big three-letter agencies: CAA, UTA, WME, and ICM. They’re looking for stories told by women, with female characters solving problems through their own agency. Nothing too dark or dystopian, no child abuse. If you can’t imagine Reese starring in the movie, forget it. Hello Sunshine is a celebrity conglomerate: the book club arm seeks properties for the film and television production arm, and builds audiences for them, and extends the Witherspoon brand. That probably explains why the book in Reese’s hands looks brand new and unread but, again, anything she does to promote reading is welcome.