Mhe book club was the first to admit defeat. Before my gym, hair salon and therapist accept that there can no longer be business as usual as coronavirus takes hold in the UK, my book club host m contacted to say our March date was over.
The news didn’t come as a big surprise. Despite the best-laid plans to meet every six weeks, our activity has always been sporadic – our last meeting was in December. We hadn’t even chosen our next book yet, such was our preventive commitment to self-isolation. As our host said, the book club had already been in quarantine for months.
As the Covid-19 crisis has confined us to our homes, a glimmer of hope (quite insufficient, of course, but we seek them all the same) is that it has allowed us to catch up on our reading. Being mostly solitary and indoors, it’s one of the few activities that remains unchanged in this new world, while giving us access to others. With every connected device a potential portal for anxiety, there may never have been a greater need to escape into print.
People have started sharing photos of books they’ve been storing to self-isolate under the hashtag #CoronavirusReadingStack. “Panic Buying” a woman said of her new Anne Enright. “Do I have enough books to last?” afflicted another, like her library picks were toilet paper.
The internet has allowed new book clubs to form, despite self-isolation and shutdowns. In the United States, the Quarantine Book Club offers readers the opportunity to “talk to the authors without touching anyone”, by hosting live online Q&As ($5 for a login link). In the UK, Salon London launched a fortnightly book club and increased the frequency of its live author talks to YouTube twice a week, after seeing a 20% increase in viewers. German tennis player Andrea Petkovic launched her Racquet Book Club on Instagram (their top pick was tennis fan David Foster Wallace’s String Theory).
On Twitter, Underland author Robert Macfarlane has already recruited hundreds of people for his global reading of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, under the hashtag #CoReadingVirus. Some participants even bought extra copies of the book for those who cannot afford it.
“Literature has always done an amazing job of sparking community and conversation – it’s no surprise to me that it does so, so powerfully now,” Macfarlane says.
Londoner Tania Hardcastle had been planning on starting a book club for some time before coronavirus wiped out her schedule: “I thought now would be the perfect time to start.”
She and her friends Sharlene Gandhi and Priya Shah received such a response to their idea of a “virtual book club” on Twitter — including from Caroline Criado Perez, the author of the first book they chose, Invisible Women — that they were to limit membership to 15 people. Their planned Google hangout “could get unmanageable otherwise,” says Hardcastle.
Communities didn’t just form online; they migrated there. “Real-life” book clubs more disciplined than mine have already moved to virtual meeting rooms such as Google Hangouts, or the suddenly ubiquitous video conferencing platform Zoom.
Sarah West, a York-based scholar, hosted her seven-person book club around her dining table every month, for three years. Last Monday, they got together to discuss Lara Williams’ Supper Club on Zoom. After the initial greetings – “so we can see each other’s setup: ‘Here I am sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea’, ‘Here I am at my table with a glass of wine'” – the cameras were turned off to save bandwidth and batteries.
With no body language cues and only one person able to speak at a time, the discussion required “more active management” than usual, West says. But “it went really well – so much so that I woke up the next day and thought, ‘God, I didn’t clean up after book club last night.’ It took me a long time to come downstairs and realize it was me sitting on the couch, it was really authentic.
With his energies divided between work and his two young children, West says it was a relief to find that his book club would not be disrupted. “I trust that at least once a month I’ll feel like I’ve had a free evening, being sociable.”
The relaxed formality of book clubs could be a boon as we adjust to the age of “video blocking,” lending structure to unfamiliar and often stilted interaction. Virtual pub quizzes are proving just as popular right now.
Beaconsfield-based Pam Cottman’s book club has gone through multiple platforms in 15 years – from email to WhatsApp and now, Zoom. All but two of the eight active members are over 60; Cottman predicts that their first virtual meeting next Tuesday, to discuss Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, will be mostly devoted to technical troubleshooting. But as a former teacher turned resilience coach, she says connection, community and “maintaining a bit of normalcy” will be crucial to getting through the weeks and months ahead.
Books themselves can help inspire resilience, Cottman says — her group’s latest pick, The Choice by Auschwitz survivor Edith Eger, is a good example. “In so many stories of challenges and trauma, there is hope and positivity and that shift in mindset that keeps us going,” she says.
Macfarlane says he chose The Living Mountain – a ‘masterpiece of careful observation’ of Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountains, and the book he gave as a gift more than any other – in order to venture beyond our quarantine limits. “Obviously we can’t reach distant landscapes right now, but we can read and dream to find our way there,” he says.
Shepherd wrote the slim volume during World War II, and his musings on love, loss, and kindness are set against the backdrop of distant catastrophe. Macfarlane calls it a “book of beauty born out of crisis”, with echoes of the one we now face; but, as a top pick for #CoReadingVirus, it’s “neither escape work nor work that confronts” the coronavirus head-on.
His ambitions for his book club are modest, Macfarlane says, but not frivolous. “I don’t see reading as a diversion from what is happening. Dreaming of other places, other ways of being – these are powerful needs.
It’s worth noting that while the 2011 medical thriller Contagion enjoyed a resurgence and the docu-series Pandemic Trends on Netflix, none of the book clubs I spoke to had themed their reading material around the coronavirus. . This suggests that by connecting to the literature, we seek to align with a common experience – other than our shared experience of Covid-19.
“I think escapism is going to be the way to go,” says West, of his book club. Their current pick, a collection of poetry by Fran Lock, predates the pandemic, but its title? Contains Light Peril.
Online book clubs you can join
The Guardian Reading Group
How about our own? On the first Tuesday of each month, we submit a theme or an author to the public vote and choose a book chosen by you. Prolific reader and editor, Sam Jordison then hosts an online chat every Tuesday where he explains the story of the book, researches any questions you ask, and even hosts live chats with the author – while you focus on the conversation.
It’s been on your reading list forever, and there’s never been a better time to tackle War and Peace than under the direction of novelist Yiyun Li, who runs a virtual book club with the hashtag #TolstoyTogether.
London Book Club Lounge
The live event company is launching its new book club with adults, ahead of a live Q&A with author Emma Jane Unsworth on April 19.
Reese’s Book Club
Reese Witherspoon’s love of reading shone through in Ann Patchett’s recent glowing profile for Vanity Fair. Her Instagram book club, @reesesbookclub, discusses one book a month “with a woman at the center of the story” and is followed by 1.5 million people.
Our shared shelf
Actress Emma Watson founded this book club, which focuses on intersectional feminist literature, in 2016. Although she announced she would be retiring her involvement with the group in January 2020, the community continues to discuss books under the hashtag #oursharedshelf on TwitterInstagram and Goodreads.
Enlightened team of ladies
Sheree Milli’s all-female “IRL” book club is based in London, but it’s turned into an “isolated book club” on Instagram, where they’re due to start Stephanie Wrobel’s The Recovery of Rose Gold on March 26 at 7 p.m. GMT.
Dialogue Virtual Reading Room
Sharmaine Lovegrove has started a book club for her editorial imprint, which focuses on books by and about LGBTQI+ communities, people with disabilities, working class and BAME. She’ll be chatting with a Dialogue author about her book on Instagram Live every Thursday at 8pm GMT for the next 10 weeks.