Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Jerry Amernic: The Canadian roots of the world’s biggest book club

Commentary

When Erin Woodward’s book club reads something new it’s not only the members in her home in Burlington, Ontario who read it. They are also reading the same book in New York, London, Melbourne, and Stuttgart, not to mention Dubai, Istanbul, and Singapore. The Gloss Book Club is the world’s biggest book club where its female members meet in person. And it was started by a Canadian woman who was working, and feeling isolated, in the United Kingdom.

Erin, 43, has a degree in communication and media studies from the University of Ottawa that included a stint at the University of Stendahl in France. Yes, she likes to travel and has been to 50 countries. After graduating she spent six years in London and found the city “hugely transient” in that it was full of professional people from everywhere. In an effort to meet others of like mind, she decided to form a book club. It took off and when members left London to return to their own countries they started new chapters.

Says Erin when I interviewed her: “The book is an olive branch that leads to deeper discussions.”

There were rules. Members met monthly to discuss a book, but not in someone’s home. It was always a public place—a restaurant or community centre. They paid on the go per meeting or upfront for the year. The annual fee is $55 in Canada, $55 USD in the United States, 55 pounds in the U.K., or 55 Euros in Europe—and 5 percent of that fee goes to charity. If you happen to be travelling and there is a chapter where you’re going, you can attend the meeting, but not uninvited. Every attendee has a “ticket,” in essence, a reservation, and the number of those reservations is limited.

The biggest chapter in the world is Edinburgh, Scotland with 40 spots held at each meeting, and depending on the city, the number of women who attend meetings can be anywhere from ten to 100. But that is misleading when it comes to actual membership. The average is about 1,000 members per chapter. And with 150 chapters around the world, that means 150,000 members, which is nothing to sneeze at. Boston used to be the biggest chapter, but then COVID came.

The Gloss Book Club, which has always stressed in-person meetings, had to switch to Zoom. The result? Fewer people attended and membership in some chapters plummeted. Only in 2023 did things revert to pre-pandemic levels and now things are booming again.

Each chapter is run by a host. Erin, who has two children, is the host of the Burlington chapter while her mother used to host a chapter in Lindsay, Ontario, which is the family’s hometown. But grandmothers, while welcome, are not the norm here.

The website has a media kit with all the demographics. Around the world, 42 percent of members are aged 26 to 35, and 26 percent are 36 to 45. Only 11 percent are 56 and over. When it comes to work, 59 percent of members are employees in an organization, while 11 percent are owner-managers of their own businesses. Half of them—50 percent—are married and 32 percent single. Perhaps the most telling statistic has to do with motherhood: only 40 percent of the members have children.

So The Gloss would seem to be largely an organization of younger, professional women who like to read. It was initially called The Girly Book Club when Erin established it in 2008, but this isn’t about chick lit. While there is some of that, members tackle all genres: historical fiction, contemporary fiction, memoirs, and psychedelic thrillers are especially big. In 2016 Erin incorporated, quit her job, went into this full-time, and hasn’t looked back.

The website is as slick as that of any corporation. The leadership team includes Erin as founder and CEO, along with a marketing director, a coordinator, an administrator, and a person who handles design and development. You can search chapters and their hosts, access sites with book reviews by an army of bloggers, and find links to the club on Facebook and Instagram.

Today The Gloss Book Club has 50 book reviewers around the world and books are reviewed every other day. In fact, when I checked I found a review of one of my novels, The Last  Witness. It scored a 4 out of 5. But the book discussed at the monthly meetings for all those 150 chapters is something else again. Members vote and select four books. Then another vote is taken and one book is picked to be reviewed by, well, the world.

Recent selections were the New York Times bestseller and memoir Solito by Javier Zamora, which is about a poet who tells about his migration from El Salvador to the U.S. at the age of nine. Others were Lost & Found: Reflections on Grief, Gratitude and Happiness by Kathryn Schulz, and From the Ashes: My Story of Being Indigenous, Homeless and Finding My Way by Jesse Thistle.

Erin also belongs to Goodreads, the world’s biggest site for readers, and what she reads there can be heavy. Two books she discussed are Night, Elie Wiesel’s personal account of his surviving a Nazi death camp, and Infidel which is Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s struggle growing up in a strict Muslim household before finding her way to the West.

A woman puts books into a bookshelf at the book fair in Frankfurt, central Germany, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010. Michael Probst/AP Photo.

The Gloss Book Club always selects a book of the year. Last year it was True Biz: A Novel by Sara Nović. This is fiction about a woman who is teaching at a boarding school for the deaf. In 2022 it was The Guncle by Steven Rowley, a humorous novel about a gay sitcom star left alone for the summer with his niece and nephew.

With all the demographics at her disposal, has Erin discovered any reading patterns? Yes. She says chick lit resonates with North American readers, but not so much in Great Britain. And here is something surprising. While this is mostly about the reading habits of younger women, more members prefer physical (i.e., paper) books over e-books and audiobooks.

Erin organizes retreats for chapter hosts and visits what she says are the world’s three biggest centres for English-language publishing: New York, London, and Toronto. She also works closely with publishers for advertising programs and events. In January, Harper Collins held an event at its Toronto office for 75 club members with two authors on hand.

The Gloss Book Club is no not-for-profit; it is an incorporated business. Erin draws a salary and runs it just like any CEO. She calls herself an “accidental entrepreneur” in that it wasn’t supposed to be a full-time job but it just happened. And with 150,000 members, things don’t have to be confined to books. That’s why this year Erin is embarking on the Business Edit, which will promote female entrepreneurship. She also plans to launch a business book club—a club within a club—to focus on business books and self-development.

When asked what she has learned from the experience, she offered these two nuggets:

  1. Community is key to wellness and self-fulfillment.
  2. Loneliness is an epidemic.

Now 16 years in, she says The Gloss Book Club addresses both those items. And one more thing is in store for 2024. In July, she and her husband will take their two kids – aged three and five – away for a whole year to live in Bali. You see, Erin wants her children to be not only readers but travellers too.

Patrick Luciani: How austerity saved Greece

Commentary

In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani dives into two books on the topic of austerity, examining their theses in light of a relevant, real-world example of these policies in action: the case study of Greece embracing austerity to kickstart its current economic resurgence. The two books are The Capital Order: How Economists Invented Austerity and Paved the Way to Fascism by Clara E. Mattei (The University of Chicago Press, 2022) and Austerity: When It Works and When It Doesn’t, by Alberto Alesina, Carlo Favero, and Francesco Giavazzi (Princeton University Press, 2019).

It’s remarkable to witness Greece’s economic resurgence in Europe. From being on the verge of being kicked out of the Eurozone, Greece’s economy is now growing faster than the European average, unemployment has been halved, and its debt has transitioned from junk to investment grade, attracting more foreign investment.

After the financial collapse of 2008, government spending spiralled out of control, pushing the national debt to a staggering 180 percent of GDP, while trombone players and pastry chefs got to retire at 50 on government pensions. Unions also ran amok in state-owned and heavily regulated industries where employees at Olympic Airlines and their families enjoyed free global travel. A staggering 80 percent of the budget in the defence ministry went to administration. Tax evasion had become a national sport, particularly among the wealthy, where doctors and professionals got paid under the table in envelopes stuffed with cash. 

In early 2015, in the midst of Greece’s third international bailout, the newly elected anti-austerity party, Syriza, decided to take a bold step. They appointed the swashbuckling Yanis Varufakis, a Marxist economist, as finance minister to negotiate for better terms with the Troika, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF. The negotiations didn’t go well as Varufakis insisted on educating the Troika on how they were exploiting Greece. The Germans, who were paying the bills, would have none of it. 

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras finally faced reality. After only five months in office, he fired his arrogant finance minister and agreed to strict austerity measures for Greece’s third bailout. A deep recession quickly followed, but the economy started to turn around. 

According to the anti-austerity crowd, this wasn’t supposed to happen. They put their faith in more spending, not less. Many on the Left claim that austerity is a conspiracy to save capitalism from itself by protecting corporate profits through the exploitation of the working classes. Clara E. Mattei makes this argument in her new book The Capital Order: How Economists Invented Austerity and Paved the Way to Fascism. Its subtitle pretty much gives away her position. Even John Maynard Keynes comes in for a scolding in salvaging capitalism.

Mattei, who teaches at the New School for Social Research, argues that austerity undermines workers to rescue profits and capitalism. She goes back to the First World War, showing how economists in Britain and Italy deceived their people into believing that austerity was good for society. She starts with the thesis that socialism is better than capitalism but that it is never really given a chance to flourish; after all, in a 2015 referendum in Greece, a majority opposed austerity. No surprise there since people would rather have others pay for their benefits. She forgets to mention that in the same year, the Greeks themselves re-elected Tsipras and his Syriza party.  

Whether austerity programs work or not is essentially an empirical question. For that, we turn to another book, Austerity: When It Works and When It Doesn’t, by Harvard economist Alberto Alesina and his co-authors at Bocconi University in Milan, Carlo Favero and Francesco Giavazzi. Rather than speculate from a pre-determined political position as Mattei does, Alesina et al. ask if cutting government spending is more effective than higher taxes in forgone output and employment. For an answer, the authors analyze the data from 16 advanced countries and their experience with austerity programs. 

The authors conclude that austerity measures are effective when governments face financial crises. Substantial cuts in spending (expenditure-based austerity) tend to impose lower costs than programs that increase taxes. This was demonstrated in the U.K. and Ireland after 2008, where their economies outperformed other European countries.

In Canada, the austerity programs in the 1990s under both Conservatives and Liberals showed growth rates above 3 percent while debt over GDP also started to decrease. Italy, a potential candidate for austerity measures, has never tried it, and its economy hasn’t grown for the last two decades. Austerity also shows that politicians who pursue vital austerity programs don’t always suffer the political consequences. The book gets high praise for its scholarship and will “serve as a touchstone for future studies.”

Albert Alessina, who passed away in 2022 at the age of 63, reminded us that austerity programs are only necessary when governments make economic policy mistakes that can no longer be ignored. When this happens, the evidence suggests that austerity is more effective at maintaining or increasing growth than tax increases alone. Greece was saved by following that formula rather than the progressive program of more spending.