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Books are always a trusted coping mechanism during times of stress. As much as reading is generally a solitary activity, it is also, fundamentally, a matter of community. At the risk of venturing into Cliché Central territory, we read because we want to feel connected to others. Book clubs go even further in this relationship. Eben Ramsey, from Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, says it best: “We clung to books and our friends; they reminded us that we had another role for us.
During the pandemic, many book clubs had to stop meeting in person. However, like many other groups of people who have come together to discuss a common interest, they have turned to Zoom and other meeting platforms to stay connected. It had consequences, of course. Sometimes bad, sometimes charming. One of these is that more people could join. In a way, virtual book clubs have helped build more connections.
When I started preparing this article, I did what I often do at the start of my research: I sent out a tweet asking people with some experience on the topic if they were ready to answer some questions. . But, unlike the usual three or four responses I tend to get, I was surprised when as many as fifty people volunteered, all eager to talk about their experiences at the book club. That’s when this article went from a strict “Here’s how virtual book clubs work” to “… Oh. Something deeper is happening here.
My own personal experience
This topic aroused my interest for personal reasons: I myself joined two book clubs after the start of the pandemic. Living on my own and now working from home was either finding a way to talk to people or slowly losing what was left in my head. So when I heard about the Readership Book Club, I immediately signed up. During my research for this play, I discovered the Beers & Bard Book Club, a fantastic group of people who come together to perform Shakespeare plays over a drink. Although they are based in Austin, Texas, I was able to participate in a few meetings from my apartment in South Argentina. Talk about fostering connections.
I ended up interviewing nearly twenty people. A minority of them ran their book clubs, while the majority were participants. Some of them were theme specific: Shakespeare, young adult, college, romance, anti-racism, queer bed. Others weren’t. Some were run by official institutions, others were made up of friends who met to discuss books and have fun together. Some clubs had gone from face-to-face to virtual, others had always taken place online.
The disadvantages of virtual book clubs
A common thread running through the responses, when I asked about the differences between in-person and virtual book clubs, is that members missed the one-on-one they had prior to the pandemic outbreak. . Many were also used to meeting over coffee, a drink or a meal, and they felt the lack of this sense of meeting. Leora Spitzer, organizer of the Jewish Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Club, based in St. Louis, Missouri, explains: For ice cream at the ice cream shop next to the bookstore when we met in person, for example.
Another frequent complaint concerns technology and connectivity issues. Kathleen Kennedy, Iowa Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) MG / YA Focus Group, notes, “There’s always a technical problem. New York-based Union Square Book Club organizer Susan Velazquez agrees: pause to make sure we’re all back on the same page before continuing the conversation.
Susan also mentions that “our conversation flow tends to move at a slower pace. In person, it was much easier to pick up on each other’s conversation cues and determine when the right time was to jump into the conversation without interrupting someone else. Now that you have a virtual meeting, there is a lot of “I’m sorry, go ahead”. “No, go ahead.” “Oh, were you saying something?” Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you! “
The advantages of virtual book clubs
On the other end of the spectrum, one feature of virtual book clubs that was consistently praised was the ability to connect with people who are geographically distant. Natali Jornet and Daniela Beunza, organizers of the Readership Book Club, based in Neuquén, Argentina, sum up: “(…) different places: it gave us the opportunity to get to know people from different parts of our country. Tamara Cherry, a member of the Bookworms Book Club, based in the Greater Toronto Area, Canada, strongly agrees: “In October, I moved from two provinces. One of the most heartbreaking parts of my move was leaving my book club, so going virtual was a great way to transition into my new reality. After the pandemic, I plan to join meetings virtually, provided that I can’t line up a business trip or vacation with the meeting.
A related consequence of this increased scope is exposure to different perspectives. Anjeanette Miller, member of the Anti-Racism Zoom Bookclub, explicitly praises this side of virtual book clubs: “I felt like this was a great way to reach out to others across the country. because it was virtual. This is what makes the Book Club more interesting to me. I think it is now easier to discuss these books online with others.
Virtual book clubs during the pandemic have also helped people keep track of their reading habits, battling the crisis that plagued so many of us during the height of the lockdown. Anjeanette declares: “I admit that I had trouble reading the first months of the pandemic. I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read. Having a goal each month helped with that.
But overall, the biggest benefit of virtual book clubs during the pandemic appears to be the sense of community and familiarity. Tamara emphasizes: “We can no longer house ourselves with food and wine, but when the pandemic struck our book club took on an important new meaning. When the blockades started last year, we all felt anxious, scared, uncertain. We called a meeting before our next book club meeting, just to talk. It was the first time we had done this, without a book. Many of us cried. It was so heartwarming to have something familiar, even if it was virtual. Since then, we have continued our regular meetings every month or so, virtually.
Brittany Bunzey, organizer of The Story Keepers, a book club for children aged 8 to 12, emphasizes the importance of this club for children: “Our book club is really a community point for children. Some weeks we don’t have much chatting about the books because the kids are just talkers and just need to be able to talk to kids their age, but most of the time we get 30min chatting about books !
In some cases, the need for community was the catalyst for the existence of the club. This is the case with the Jewish Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Club. In Leora’s words: “While we had some vague discussions about having a reading group in the synagogue before the pandemic, I think the pandemic was in many ways the catalyst to make it happen. Unlike many other types of synagogue socializing, a book chat lends itself rather well in the virtual format, and we were all anxious to have more opportunities for structured socialization and to see each other.
In the end we are all grateful
To anyone’s surprise, it appears that virtual book clubs are not universal. They have their advantages, but also their disadvantages; and they are often the opposite sides of the same coin. I think it’s important to emphasize accessibility: virtual book clubs allow people who might otherwise not be able to attend meetings (whether due to geographic barriers, disabilities or other reasons) to participate. On the other hand, while the Internet has made a lot of things more accessible, we must not forget that Internet access is Also a privilege that not everyone has.
Throughout my preparation for this article, however, I noticed just one common thread: Whether people like the virtual format or are desperate to return to normal in-person meetings, they were. all grateful for the opportunity to bond with people about the shared love of books. To my surprise, my article on virtual book clubs ended up not being about virtual book clubs at all – it’s about people, reaching out, connecting to something that is, at the base, a community. It’s about love, resilience and getting through these excruciating years. Together.