(leaving my first impression, adding to it in a minute): SQUEE! I got my own copy! It just arrived! And unlike many university titles, this book has *heft*! Heavy paper and actual length. I'm so tired of paying a billion dollars for under a hundred pages.
Finished! Here's what I learned: That book clubs are very old, and started out not as groups of people getting together to read and discuss the same book, but groups of people pooling their funds in order to purchase and share books, which were very expensive. Eventually this led to the members of the club getting together to discuss the books. These gatherings were exclusively male, because they were held in pubs.
These book clubs also evolved into subscription lending libraries, to which members of the public could pay a fee in order to borrow titles. Again, the end-result was that people who had a little disposable cash and a taste for reading could pool their funds with like-minded sorts and have access to more books than they could have purchased as individuals.
"A Nation of Readers" outlines the history of the lending library (which, of course, eventually evolved into the public libraries we know and love). It also gives a great many details as to what titles and sorts of people one might find in such a library. I'm doing research for a YA novel set in Regency England, and my main character is a reader, so this book gave me some much-appreciated information on the subject.