Notebook: Reading Together, Reading Apart (Part I)

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

Sometimes it seems like reading is the most sociable thing you do alone, or the most alone thing you do together—in that way perfect for a lockdown. How we have read together during the last year offers a kind of window onto the gains and losses of our sequestered moment.

Shared reading sprang up as one of the first responses to quarantine, for instance when novelist YiYun Li invited people to read War and Peace along with her on March 18 under the banner #TolstoyTogether and ended up with a spontaneous reading group of thousands. Time identified shared reading with thousands of participants as soon as March 25. In December the book club web site BookBrowse released a report on how in-person book clubs had managed during lockdown. It makes for poignant reading. Sixty-five percent of the five-thousand-plus book club participants they surveyed had been meeting virtually since the early spring and 17 percent outdoors with social distancing (just 3 percent in person without precautions). Most of the book groups who had suspended altogether had previously met in public places, often reliant on an organizer, like a bookseller or a librarian, at a location that had been closed to the public. Twelve percent fewer of the book club participants in the survey reported being “very happy” with their book club than in a 2019 report, but they said their book club was “more important” to them, that they “have a greater appreciation for the group,” and that it provides “more emotional support” than before the lockdown. Said one respondent, “Being a widow living alone, unable to see or visit my family, reading books gives great pleasure, and the contact and discussion with club members makes life worth living during the pandemic.”

Though many who are meeting virtually miss the in-person experience—saliently eating and drinking, holding multiple conversations simultaneously—there were gains, like being able to include those who are in poor health, or traveling, or have moved away, or lack childcare, meeting in all kinds of weather, accessibility for those who are hard of hearing or mobility-impaired. The report cited respondents’ pride at having adapted to adversity as one of the benefits of the experience. Some complained that there was less socializing and drinking and more attention to the book, some appreciated it. Some enjoyed meeting outdoors. Twenty-nine percent said they were reading more serious books during the pandemic, equal numbers said they were reading lighter books. Of US respondents, 27 percent said they kept politics off the table. A few book clubs lost members who were not willing to adhere to CDC guidelines when meeting in person or did not want to deal with the technology of meeting remotely. A third expect to retain a virtual element when they are finally again able to gather.

The findings echo a recent report from the Panorama Project (a “cross-industry publishing initiative”) showing how energetically committed readers read across different “channels.” Library readers in BookBrowse’s survey (contrary to publishers’ fears) are also book buyers and vice versa. Eighty-four percent of book club participants sometimes borrowed from the library (according to the 2019 survey), but 20 percent reported that they bought books they previously would have borrowed during the lockdown. They adapted to closed libraries, frozen interlibrary loans, and increased demand for books, many adjusting for the first time to digital reading. According to the 2019 survey, 34 percent of book club participants read three to four books a month, 37 percent read more, and 22 percent (for instance my college roommate) belong to multiple book clubs. There was recurrent praise for library staff for helping them navigate these changed systems. (In 2019, 54 percent of responding book club participants met in a private home and 15 percent at a library. The 2019 report said, “We have spoken to many book clubbers over the years whose first experience was hosted by a library or bookstore.”

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Reading groups have been around for centuries, particularly among those barred from formal education. The French salonnières in the seventeenth and eighteenth century used fashionable gatherings to engage in intellectual debates that had been closed to women, a phenomenon reborn in America via women intellectuals like Margaret Fuller. During the Great Awakening enslaved people in America would gather around those who could read the Bible to form the country’s first Black congregations. Eric Klinenberg (referring to African American barber shops) considers what sociologist Nancy Fraser’s calls a “counterpublic,” protected social environments that give marginalized groups forums in which to develop ideas, to be necessary “social infrastructure.” In a piece during last summer’s racial justice protests on new reading groups cropping up among younger African American women, such as Noname Book Club and Well-Read Black Girl, Iman Stevenson said these groups provide an opportunity for discussion “free of the white gaze.”

Black women readers have been energetic book clubbers since the nineteenth century, when, as editor Patrik Henry Bass says, “literary societies and book clubs made up of free black women in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston read the letters of the day, drank lemonade and ate tea sandwiches and were often entertained by a musician playing the piano.” The enormous success of Terry McMullan’s Waiting to Exhale in 1992, seeded by her own travels around the country to cheer on her readers while her publishers seemed unable to locate them, finally began to bring the vitality of these durable independent reading groups (as well as Black bookselling and the very existence of McMillan’s audience of Black women readers) to the attention of publishers. Bass, who as editorial director at Essence had published McMillan from the beginning of her career, told NPR that McMillan’s passionate readership “started to make book clubs hip and chic again.” McMillan’s tapped into this ready audience both as subjects and as readers, sparking the joy and affirmation of shared reading, in Bass’s words, into a “cultural happening.”

The Panorama study demonstrates that this audience remains strong and to a large extent untapped: “the most avid book engagers (4+ books a month) are Black and Latinx and are younger than the general US population.” “A racially diverse market for book content is already here and can be nurtured,” says the summary of their findings. “Publishers, authors, and booksellers who don’t serve nonwhite readers and authors are leaving money on the table. Librarians can reach a more diverse patron base by exploring more expansive collections, including self-published titles.” (In our Book Notes on February 19 we noted that writing by Black authors is often reaching readers by bypassing traditional publication routes.) When Oprah Winfrey, the most visible contemporary avatar of the tradition of Black women reading together, created her televised book club in 1996, she became the biggest driver of book sales ever. The site African American Literature Book Club currently lists 755 African American book clubs. Women, meanwhile, still dominate among book club participants and book readers generally. (BookBrowse’s 2019 report cites a Pew finding that 82 percent of women read one book a year, compared with 69 percent of men.) —Whither Book Clubs in the digital age? Read Part II of this post here.

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