The Joy of Book Subscriptions

Michael Dirda has written a new book on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and in anticipation of its release in November, The Paris Review Blog has posted this wonderful excerpt, A Doyle Man. I’m a fan of Holmes and Watson, to be sure, but what I loved most about the excerpt was Dirda’s memories of obtaining his first “grown up book,” The Hound of the Baskervilles, purchased when he was in fifth grade from the monthly order form that was handed out in his classroom. This brought back fond memories of elementary school and the Scholastic Book Club, a newsprint catalog of a few pages that our teacher handed out periodically through the school year. The colorful pages were filled with little pictures of book covers accompanied by brief blurbs and prices–generally less than a couple of dollars–with an order form in the back. I would pore over that catalog and choose as many books as I thought I could get away with and, lucky child that I was, my mother rarely told me no. The books themselves were mostly early readers–I think I was in second or third grade at the time–but I know I still have a few of them to this day, stashed in a box with other childhood treasures at my parents’ house. There’s a biography of Helen Keller, complete with the braille alphabet raised on the back cover, and a book called King of the Dollhouse, about a little girl who discovers a miniature king has moved into her dollhouse with his tiny offspring.

The truth is, my mother could have as easily purchased those books for me from the bookstore, or I could have borrowed them from the library. But there was something about the act of picking and choosing from a limited selection in that catalog, then waiting for everyone’s books to be delivered to the classroom weeks later that really felt special, akin to getting a real letter addressed to you in the mail. There was an element of surprise, even if you remembered what you’d ordered, and that sense of anticipation, never knowing exactly what day the order would come through.

As an adult, I see ripples of this effect still. Things like the Book of the Month Club, or Harlequin’s category subscriptions, give readers that same little thrill of someone choosing the month’s books for you. There’s no obligation to purchase them, of course, but being a member, having the opportunity to get something new to read in your mailbox–it’s a throwback to childhood for many of us.

I have a standing order with Powell’s Books for the Indiespensable subscription. Every six weeks I get a box in the mail with the current new book–always announced ahead of time, and always a new release in a lovely binding that’s been autographed–and a surprise. Understanding the fun inherent in getting a present, Powell’s has organized their subscription to include some special something in addition to the book you knowingly purchase. Sometimes it’s a treat, like chocolate or coffee; sometimes a great mug or a Powell’s tote bag; often it’s another book, an ARC of something yet to be released. It almost doesn’t matter. Half the joy is in the anticipation, like opening a box of Cracker Jack and searching for the toy surprise.

Other web sites have similar book clubs. The Rumpus has a fiction club and a poetry club, where subscribers get new books before they are released and have the chance to discuss them with the author and other club members in a moderated discussion online. These virtual book clubs take the more conventional book club concept–typically a gathering of friends in someone’s home or some other meeting place to chat about a previously chosen title–and raise it to another level, not only choosing the book, but providing readers with an easy means of acquisition.

How many of you belong to a book club where someone else chooses the books you read? Or a subscription of this sort, where you choose from a small assortment of titles recommended for the month? How many of you remember ordering books in school as a kid? And for those readers outside the U.S., is this an American phenomenon, or do other countries have these sorts of book subscriptions as well?