Book Clubs in our new reality

Dear Fellow Journalers,

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As we physically distance ourselves from one another to protect public health, staying socially connected remains vital to our sense of community and well-being. For many of us, book clubs are an essential part of that connection, and fortunately, there are a number of options for moving your in-person book club online, joining up with an online club or creating one from scratch. The COVID-19 crisis has even prompted some people and organizations to form quarantine-friendly public book discussions. So let’s look at some ways you can enjoy books with others while staying safely at home.

Tools for Taking Your Existing Book Club Online
Already have an in-person book club but not sure how to meet now that everyone is self-isolating? Below are some easy ways to connect electronically.

Private Groups for Posting and Commenting

To hold your club discussions online in a simple posting and commenting forum, you can easily create a private group on Facebook or Goodreads, which is an especially convenient solution if most of your club members are already on one of these sites.

One advantage to moving your club to these platforms is that you don’t have to set specific meeting times. However, you’ll probably still find some degree of planning helpful to maintaining enthusiasm and smooth communication. To stay organized, set a clear time limit on each book discussion. In general, it’s probably a good idea for discussions to last at least a week, as conversations move slower when multiple people are responding to each other at different times.

You may also want to lay down some ground rules for posting. For example, you can designate one person to get the discussion off to a strong start by creating multiple posts each with a different question or discussion prompt. Then everyone comments to the posts they want to, first reading what others have said just as you would in an in-person discussion. Alternately or additionally, you can make it a different person’s job to introduce new topics every day for as long as the discussion lasts. Really, this all just depends on what your group is comfortable with, and especially with smaller groups, it may be best to simply improvise and see what works.

Note: In addition to the regular posting and commenting features on Facebook, you can use Facebook Messenger for group chats, group audio calls and group video chats (see below).

Group Text Chats

Apps that give you the ability to group chat through typed or texted instant messages, like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, are great for clubs that would like to hold discussions in real time while avoiding the technology blips that video conferencing might involve.

The biggest challenge with group chats is that they can move very quickly, making it difficult to keep up or get a word in edgewise. To prevent this, limit the group size for each chat. If you have a club of more than five or six members, it may be wise to split up into two or more separate discussion clubs.

To keep discussions from getting too cluttered, introduce topics one at a time. Try loosely planning out the conversation ahead of time and emailing out a list of questions or topics to everyone, or let everyone collaborate by writing out their own ideas for discussion in a Google Doc. Once a new topic is introduced, people can chat freely until the conversation begins to die down, then move on to the next topic when everyone is ready.

Video and Audio Calls

Another option becoming more popular for meetings and communication in general is group video or audio conferencing through services like Zoom, Skype and Facebook Messenger.

Using video group chats for your book discussions can create a more “normal” discussion atmosphere but might also require more time to get comfortable. You may want to set up a practice meeting ahead of time where instead of having a focused discussion, you just check in to see how everyone is doing and get familiar with the platform’s different features. Once you start your regular club meetings, you can choose a leader for each meeting to plan and guide discussions so that people don’t have to think too much about when to speak or what to talk about.

Group audio calls may be the most challenging book discussion format to pull off, since it can be difficult to coordinate a conversation with a whole group of people and no visual cues. The main benefit of audio calls over video is that they’re often less prone to glitches and other technical issues. Group audio will likely work best for small clubs where everyone is already comfortable with each other. Even then, you may want to make it one person’s role to ask questions that make it easy for people to indicate they have something to say before sharing their thoughts. For example, the person might introduce a topic and then ask, “Does anyone have thoughts on that?”

When considering any of the above advice, keep in mind that while rules and guidelines can be helpful, they should facilitate communication rather than making it more restricted. Don’t be afraid to experiment, be flexible and have fun!

Public Online Book Clubs and Discussions You Can Join or Follow
Whether or not you are part of a private book group, joining or following online book discussions that are open to the public can be a comforting diversion and a useful way to meet new people. Below are a few discussion groups and clubs (some newly hatched in response to the COVID-19 crisis) that anyone can join or follow.

Tolstoy Together is a new ongoing discussion about Tolstoy’s classic War and Peace hosted by the magazine A Public Space and led by Yiyun Li (author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, among other books) that covers 12-15 pages daily. Use the hashtag #TolstoyTogether to participate in this discussion on Twitter, or just follow along with Li’s comments on the blog.

The Translated Fiction Online Book Club is a collaborative effort between several publishers of translated books. Weekly meetings are held via Zoom on Thursdays at 8pm GMT. You can sign up for an invitation here and view the scheduled books at the link above.

Anyone can participate in BookBrowse’s Online Book Club discussions on our site’s messaging forum and you can sign up to be notified when new discussions begin. If you’re a BookBrowse subscriber, you can request a free copy of a book to read before a discussion opens.

Quarantine Book Club lets you purchase a $5 ticket to join a book discussion featuring the book’s author over Zoom. The club has already discussed books by Maria Ingrande Mora, Dan Sinker, Myriam Gurba and others. New discussions are opening all the time!

#ReadWithMC is a monthly online book club hosted by the magazine Marie-Claire that only discusses books by women authors. You can follow the club through Goodreads and submit your own reviews to be featured on the site.

Bonus Option: Postal Book Clubs
Here’s another interesting option for long-distance book discussions with which you may be less familiar. In a recent interview with a longtime postal book club participant, we discussed the fascinating logistics of how some postal book groups work. Books and journals are cycled through a group of people via mail, giving everyone a chance to read and record their thoughts on each book before sending it on to the next recipient. Postal book clubs can be organized through Goodreads or other online platforms.

Some people may understandably have concerns about passing the COVID-19 virus through the mail. The CDC currently states that “there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures.” Of course, you should still follow recommended hygiene procedures and discuss any safety concerns you have with your group. For more information on what experts know about how the virus spreads and how you can protect yourself and others, visit the CDC website.

No matter what their format, book discussions can be helpful in fulfilling our mental, emotional, intellectual and social needs. They may have an especially important role to play in our lives now, as they have the potential to help us feel less isolated on both local and global levels.


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