Rewriting the rules of the book club

Rewriting the rules of the book club

EVERY month a group of millennials gathers at a pub in London to discuss what they’ve been reading. The 20- and 30-Somethings Book Club was founded in 2014 on Meetup, an event-sharing site, and claims 2,000 followers. Participants suggest themes and a book is chosen accordingly: this month, on the subject of banned books, they have pored over “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Though there are only 20 spaces per event—which get snapped up well in advance—users contribute to the discussion before, during and after on Meetup’s message boards, with those who attended the meeting often commenting on the issues raised during their conversation.

Despite the myriad distractions of Netflix and social media, literary chat still has a certain appeal for young people. Online networks have helped, not hindered, bookish engagement, with WhatsApp groups and online hangouts enabling real-time discussion between individuals across the globe. Those with a particular fondness for romance fiction, say, or sport or biography, can find like-minded readers easily through websites like Goodreads. As the discussions take place online, it invites those who may not normally speak up in groups of strangers to offer their thoughts. 

Celebrities and public figures have played a significant role in this modern iteration of the book club. After 15 years of recommendations discussed during her prime-time television show, Oprah Winfrey’s book club now hosts online discussions for the chosen texts; members are encouraged to purchase specially enhanced digital editions, enabling them to share passages and quotes on Facebook and Twitter. Reese Witherspoon curates a monthly book club online to tie in with Hello Sunshine, her media production company focused on female-driven narratives. Our Shared Shelf, Emma Watson’s feminist book club, has been selecting texts for online debate since 2016. Any member can pose a question to the wider group, write a public review or simply express an opinion. For every text selected many others are suggested by users, and conversations within these threads range from criticism to personal anecdotes inspired by the book in question. 

Where book clubs were once made up of long-time friends, and convened at each other’s houses, if these new, looser groups meet at all, they do so at restaurants or bars. They have the feel of a networking event, says Tanya, who founded and runs the New Cross Book Club. “I used to live in Istanbul and was part of a book club there,” she says. “I really enjoyed it, and almost everyone was in their 30s…It’s definitely becoming a new trend.” (Exact figures for book-club participation are hard to come by. For example, the most recent estimate given for the number of groups in Britain was in 2001, when only 36% of British households had access to the web) Rachel, who is part of a group in London, says that from these assorted groups, genuine friendships are struck up. They organise additional meetings as well as the official events, often drinks or film nights—usually an adaptation of something they’ve read.

Some argue that the modern book club boasts a new diversity of opinion. Steve, who has been attending the 20- and 30- Somethings group for two years now, says that he has encountered a range of backgrounds within the group. “Our choice of books is genuinely eclectic, and while we’re aimed at younger people, we have members from so many different nationalities and ethnicities.” Rachel agrees. “There’s a wide range of careers…which can be difficult to find in your other friendship groups.” 

Surveys consistently reveal a thwarted desire among adults to read more, with work emails and mindless social-media scrolling being the main thieves of time that could otherwise be spent on a good book. Yet it is precisely these tools that are also enabling vast numbers of people to enter into dialogues, discover new writers and instigate friendships. The internet provides a never-ending stream of information, disinformation and rumour. There is something satisfying about having everyone, for the length of a book-club novel, on the same page.

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