How book clubs went virtual during the pandemic
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve watched Anne Petrie’s The Street. I took it from the local public library, its binding and pages have been softened by dozens of previous readers. It’s a good, thick book, and Petrie took me to the streets of Harlem a generation before I was born and far from where I ever lived. Recently my book club got together to discuss this, and when the discussion was over, I moved 15 feet from my home office to my office to watch Super Bowl LVII.
I got in touch with Zoom’s Required Reading Revisited Book Club, as I have for the better part of the last three years. If everything went back to face-to-face, like some book bands do, I wouldn’t be there. It’s hosted by independent bookstore BookPeople in Austin, but I freed Austin in the middle of a pandemic for Cincinnati. I’m not the only regular who couldn’t meet face to face. Scott, another member who has been attending for about as long as I have, recently moved to Carbondale, Illinois.
I personally started working with the group three years ago in one of BookPeople’s conference rooms on the top floor. A dozen of us were discussing Carson McCullers’ book The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which I read while browsing through the maelstrom of news about the new coronavirus, which experts were taking seriously. In March 2020, we met in person for the last time to discuss The Rest of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Since then, I have not seen any of the members of the group except through my computer monitor.
In those early days of the pandemic, much of the world moved from real life to virtual life: schools, work, and even stores, thanks to delivery services that took my order at Costco and left my groceries on my porch. I’ve been in two book groups – one through BookPeople and another I found on Meetup – that were fighting to stay in person, but not for long.
Much of the country has returned to the post-pandemic world. Office capacity reached 50% for the first time since March 2020. It is relatively rare to see a disguise in a grocery store or library. I don’t know when was the last time I saw someone step off the sidewalk into a ditch to make way for another person.
Despite this, there are still groups of people who keep it virtual. Half Book Clubs BookPeople are still virtual – like, interestingly, half A.A. Meetings Tuesday in Manhattan.
However, most book clubs sponsored by public libraries are held in the conference rooms of the libraries themselves. The Cincinnati Public Library hosts several virtual classes and other activities. He currently only has one virtual book group, the Busy Reader book club, and many more IRL clubs.
David Quick, adult programming librarian at the DC Public Library, said the system has five virtual clubs and four times as many in-person clubs. One of the benefits of virtual meetings, Quick says, is that they reach out to people who wouldn’t otherwise attend, and it’s easier and cheaper to get a book author involved in a virtual discussion of their work. The DC Public Library is also hosting a Twitter discussion led by #brownbagdc librarians. On the other hand, Quick noted that there can be no eye contact and other body language in virtual meetings that help regulate behavior. “Personal book clubs have a built-in social aspect that is difficult to recreate virtually,” he said.
I contacted people from book groups that at some point went virtual. Not surprisingly, for some, this was a temporary move.
Dennis Sanders and his friends met before the pandemic on Saturdays at an informal brunch, rampage, and booze club they named—no surprise here—the Burning Brunch Bunch. With quarantine, they became virtual, but the discussions did not go like live. They turned into a book club based on some literary standards: Darling, All Quiet on the Western Front, Lolita, and For Whom the Bell Tolls, to name but a few. Now they’re back in person, sparkling and brunches no longer floating like a book club.
Millennial’s Book Group was founded in Los Angeles after Holly Haworth decided she wanted to read more books. Through the Paperless Post, she sent a request to friends to join her at her apartment for snacks and to discuss Gail Honeyman’s book Eleanor Oliphant is All Right.
The appetizers sounded killer, and Haworth said fan favorites were cucumber sandwiches, bacon-wrapped dates, and cauliflower wings. The group has moved away from wearing and has gone virtual during the pandemic. In addition to discussing books, they provided moral support to each other. Now that friends of friends from New York and Florida have joined us, they continue to use Zoom. Moral support remains an integral part of every meeting.
Gabriella Perez-Silva is in two book clubs, one work-related and the other founded by friends who first became friends in cycling lessons. A group of work books is virtual, while the other is not, although this was during the pandemic.
“We have teachers, nurses and those who care for others, so we were (and still are) very respectful and responsible,” Perez-Silva said. She has another Southern California club so they can meet outside, at least sometimes. And the friendship grew. One participant even hosts a bachelorette party at Perez-Silva’s parents’ home in Wyoming.
Always is hybrid option. Diane Saarinen belongs to the goddess group of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Athens, Georgia. The club’s program is to read bi-monthly fiction and non-fiction focused on feminists or goddesses, and they meet face-to-face with the Zoom option.
Whether a book club remains virtual, becomes a hybrid, or meets in person depends on what members are looking for in a group. By joining two book groups in Austin, I wanted to broaden my reading horizons as well as meet more people.
The Meetup group, which did not survive the pandemic, gathered at the members’ homes, occasionally dining out. I enjoyed meeting these people, but I joined the group late and didn’t form any friendships outside of the meetings. It happens, and I’m still very happy with the experience.
Revisited’s required literature has expanded my literary options, and I really like the six or eight rules that I know best. That being said, I don’t feel like I know any of them particularly well, as the Zoom format doesn’t allow side conversations, such as when people choose the same snack trays or chat after dinner, for example. meeting
Amanda Hacker, co-moderator my book club with Uriel Perez, said that while Zoom is easier to jump in, she misses meeting people in person and book club as a walk.
The benefits of virtual and hybrid teams are significant. If you still have health issues related to COVID, perhaps by being around someone who is at risk or being at risk, you can alleviate those concerns and continue reading.
In addition, if you find it difficult to connect with local people who enjoy the same types of reading that attract you, your chances will increase if you make your search wider – across the country or even around the world.
And if the astronauts on the International Space Station want to discuss Hamlet together, or Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, The Demon Copperhead, or Andy Weir’s Hail Mary Project, I’ll be delighted with such a meeting. It would be out of this world.