How book clubs went virtual in the pandemic

For the past two weeks, I’ve been picking up “The Street” by Ann Petry. I got it from my local public library, its binding and pages softened by dozens of older readers. It’s a good, thick book, and Petrie pulled me into the streets of Harlem a generation before I was born and far from where I’ve ever lived. Recently, my book club met to discuss it, and when the discussion was over, I moved 15 feet from my desk to my office to watch Super Bowl LVII.

I had linked to the Required Reading Revisited Book Club by Zoom as I have for most of the past three years. If he had gone back to in-person gatherings, as some book groups have done, I wouldn’t be there. Hosted by Austin independent bookstore BookPeople, but I left Austin in the middle of the pandemic for Cincinnati. I’m not the only regular who couldn’t make face-to-face meetings. Scott, another member who has attended as long as I have attended, recently moved to Carbondale, Illinois.

I started with the group in person three years ago in one of BookPeople’s upstairs meeting rooms. A dozen of us discussed The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, a book I read as I scanned the maelstrom of news about a new coronavirus that experts were taking seriously. In March 2020, we got together for the last time in person to discuss Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. I haven’t seen any of the team members since, except through my computer screen.

In those early days of the pandemic, much of the world moved from IRL to virtual: schools, work, even shopping, thanks to delivery services picking up my Costco order and dropping off my groceries on my front stoop. I was in two book groups – one through BookPeople and another I found on Meetup that struggled to stay in person but didn’t last.

Much of the country has re-engaged in a post-pandemic world. Office occupancy has reached 50% for the first time since March 2020. It is relatively rare to see a mask at the grocery store or library. I don’t know the last time I saw someone walk from the sidewalk to the gutter to give another person a healthy bunk.

Even so, there are still pockets of people who keep it virtual. Half of BookPeople’s book clubs are still virtual—as are, interestingly, half of AA’s Tuesday meetings in Manhattan.

A Millennial’s Book Group, Los Angeles, started when Holly Haworth decided she wanted to read more books

Courtesy of Holly Haworth

However, the majority of book clubs sponsored by public libraries are held in library meeting rooms. The Cincinnati Public Library hosts some virtual classes and other events. Right now, she only has one virtual book group, the Busy Reader book club, with many more IRL clubs.

David Quick, the adult programming librarian for the DC Public Library, said the system has five virtual clubs and four times as many unions. Among the virtues of virtual meetings are that they reach people who might not otherwise attend, and it’s easier and cheaper to seek out a book’s author in virtual discussions about their work, Quick said. The DC Public Library is also hosting a Twitter-based discussion with lead librarians, #brownbagdc. On the downside, however, Quick noted that virtual meetings can’t have eye contact and other body language that help regulate behavior. “In-person book clubs have a built-in social aspect that’s hard to recreate virtually,” he said.

I contacted people from book groups that went virtual at some point. Not surprisingly, for some, it was a temporary move.

Dennis Sanders and his friends met before the pandemic on Saturdays as an informal club for brunching, blazing and drinking, which they called – no shock here – the Burning Brunch Bunch. With the lockdowns, they went virtual, but the conversations didn’t flow like they had in person. They morphed into a book club, taking on some literary standards: Beloved, All Quiet on the Western Front, Lolita, and For Whom the Bell Tolls, to name just a few. Now they’re back in person, blazing and brunching, no longer sailing as a book club.

A Millennial’s Book Group started in Los Angeles after Holly Haworth decided she wanted to read more books. She sent out a request to friends via Paperless Post to accompany her to her apartment for appetizers and to discuss “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman.

A Millennial's Book Group, Los Angeles, started when Holly Haworth decided she wanted to read more books
A Millennial’s Book Group, Los Angeles, started when Holly Haworth decided she wanted to read more books

Courtesy of Holly Haworth

The appetizers sounded killer, and Haworth said fan favorites were the cucumber sandwiches, bacon-wrapped dates and cauliflower wings. The team abandoned the hit and went virtual during the pandemic. Beyond discussing books, they offered each other moral support. Now, with friends of friends from New York and Florida, they stick to Zoom. Moral support remains part of the fabric of every encounter.

Gabriella Perez-Silva belongs to two book clubs, one related to work and the other started by friends who first connected in spin class. The workbook group is virtual and the other is not, although it was part of the pandemic.

“We have teachers, nurses and caregivers, so we were (and still are) very respectful and responsible,” Perez-Silva said. Hers is another SoCal club, so they can meet outdoors, at least sometimes. And friendships have soured. One member is even throwing her bachelorette party at Perez-Silva’s parents’ home in Wyoming.

There’s always the option to go hybrid. Diane Saarinen is on the God Team at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Athens, Georgia. The club’s agenda is to read feminist or theocentric literature and nonfiction every two months, and they meet in person with a Zoom option.

Whether a book club stays virtual, becomes hybrid, or meets in person depends on what members are looking for in the group. By participating in the two book groups in Austin, I wanted to expand my reading horizons as well as connect with more people.

The Meetup group that didn’t survive the pandemic met in members’ homes with the occasional dinner out. I enjoyed getting to know these people, but I came later to the group and did not develop friendships beyond the meetings. It does, and I’m still very happy about the experience.

Required Reading Revisited has broadened my literary reach, and I really like the six or eight regulars I know best. That said, I don’t feel like I know any of them particularly well, since the Zoom format doesn’t allow for the kinds of side conversations that happen when, say, people choose the same appetizer platters or chat after the meeting.

Amanda Hacker, who moderates My book club with Uriel Perez, said that while it’s easier to jump on Zoom, she misses meeting people in person and the book club as a field trip.

The advantages of virtual and hybrid teams are significant. If you still have health concerns about COVID, perhaps by being around someone who is at risk or being at risk yourself, you can ease those concerns and read on.

Also, if you’re struggling to connect with people locally who enjoy the same kinds of reading that appeal to you, your chances improve if you broaden your search — nationally or even globally.

And if the astronauts on the International Space Station want to Zoom together to discuss Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel, “Demon Copperhead,” or Andy Weir’s “Project Hail Mary,” I’d be up for that meeting. It would be out of this world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *