How Online Book Clubs Transformed Reading Groups — And What's Lost When You Don't Meet IRL

Many readers are back to meeting in person after being forced to embrace Zoom book clubs during the pandemic.
Illustration: Jackson Gibbs for HuffPost

Over the last couple of weeks, I took in Ann Petry’s “The Street.” I got it from my local public library, its binding and pages softened by dozens of earlier readers. It’s a good, thick book, and Petry pulled me into the streets of Harlem a generation before I was born and far from where I have ever lived. Recently, my book club met to discuss it, and when the discussion was over I moved 15 feet from my home office to my study to watch Super Bowl LVII.

I’d connected with the Required Reading Revisited Book Club by Zoom as I have for most of the past three years. If it had gone back to in-person gatherings, as some book groups have, I wouldn’t have been there. It is organized by Austin indie bookstore BookPeople, but I vacated Austin mid-pandemic for Cincinnati. I’m not the only regular who couldn’t make face-to-face meetings. Scott, another member who’s attended for about as long as I have, recently relocated to Carbondale, Illinois.

I started with the group in person three years ago in one of BookPeople’s upper-floor meeting rooms. A dozen of us discussed Carson McCullers’ “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” a book I read while scanning the maelstrom of news reports about a novel coronavirus the experts were taking seriously. In March 2020, we gathered for the last time in person to discuss “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro. I haven’t seen any of the group members since, except through my computer monitor.

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

Much of the country has reengaged in a post-pandemic world. Office occupancy reached 50% for the first time since March 2020. It’s relatively rare to see masking in the grocery store or the library. I don’t know the last time I saw someone step from the sidewalk to the gutter to give another person a healthy berth.

Even so, there are still pockets of people who are keeping it virtual. Half of the BookPeople book clubs are still virtual ― as are, interestingly, half of the AA meetings on a Tuesday in Manhattan.

A Millennial’s Book Club, of Los Angeles, started after Holly Haworth decided she wanted to read more books
A Millennial’s Book Club, of Los Angeles, started after Holly Haworth decided she wanted to read more books
Courtesy of Holly Haworth

The majority of book clubs sponsored by public libraries, though, are held in meeting rooms of the libraries themselves. The Cincinnati Public Library hosts a few virtual classes and other events. At this time, it has only 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 in-person clubs. Among the virtues of virtual meetings is that they reach people who wouldn’t otherwise attend, and it’s easier and cheaper to loop in a book’s author in virtual discussions of their work, Quick said. The DC Public Library also hosts a Twitter-based discussion led by librarians, #brownbagdc. On the downside, though, Quick noted that virtual meetings can’t have the eye contact and other body language that help regulate behavior. “In-person book clubs have a built-in social aspect that is hard to recreate virtually,” he said.

I reached out to folks from book groups that went virtual at some point. Not surprisingly, for some, it was a temporary move.

Dennis Sanders and his friends met pre-pandemic on Saturdays as an informal club for brunch, blazing and booze, which they called — no shock here — the Burning Brunch Bunch. With the lockdowns, they went virtual, but the discussions didn’t flow as 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. They are now back in person, blazing and brunching, no longer sailing as a book club.

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

A Millennial’s Book Club, of Los Angeles, started after Holly Haworth decided she wanted to read more books
A Millennial’s Book Club, of Los Angeles, started after Holly Haworth decided she wanted to read more books
Courtesy of Holly Haworth

The appetizers sounded killer, and Haworth said fan favorites were cucumber sandwiches, bacon-wrapped dates and cauliflower wings. The group ditched the noshing and went virtual during the pandemic. Beyond discussing books, they offered each other moral support. Now, with friends of friends joining from New York and Florida, they’re sticking with Zoom. The moral support remains part of every meeting’s fabric.

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

“We have teachers, nurses, and those caring for others, so we were (and still are) very respectful and responsible,” Perez-Silva said. Hers is another SoCal club, so they’re able to meet outdoors, at least sometimes. And the friendships have grown close. One member is even having her bachelorette party at Perez-Silva’s parent’s house in Wyoming.

There’s always the option of going hybrid. Diane Saarinen belongs to the Goddess Group at a Unitarian Universalist church in Athens, Georgia. The club’s agenda is to read feminist or goddess-centered fiction and non-fiction every other month, and they meet in person with a Zoom option.

Whether a book club stays virtual, goes hybrid or meets in person depends on what members are looking for in the group. In joining the two book groups in Austin, I wanted to expand my reading horizon but also to connect with more people.

The Meetup group that didn’t survive the pandemic met at members’ houses with the occasional dinner out. I enjoyed meeting those people, but I was a later-comer to the group and no friendships gelled for me beyond the meetings. This happens, and I’m still really glad for the experience.

Required Reading Revisited has expanded my literary reach and I am quite fond of the six or eight regulars that I know best. That being said, I don’t feel that I know any of them particularly well, since the Zoom format doesn’t permit the kinds of side conversations that, for example, happen when people pick over the same trays of appetizers or chat after the meeting.

Anita Hacker, who co-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 an outing.

The upsides to virtual and hybrid groups are considerable. If you still have health concerns regarding COVID, perhaps by being around someone who’s at risk or being at risk yourself, you can mitigate those worries and get your read on.

Also, if you’re having a hard time connecting with people locally who enjoy the same kinds of reads that attract you, your chances improve if you make your search broader ― nationwide or even across the world.

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

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story referred to Anita Hacker by the incorrect name. It also used an incorrect name for A Millennial’s Book Club.

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