The rise of the virtual book club

Writer Brian Leyden on how his book club has moved to Zoom to survive the lockdown

We’ve been meeting for eight years and, until the Coronavirus pandemic, we took it in turns to gather in each other’s houses. Photograph: Getty Images

We’ve been meeting for eight years and, until the Coronavirus pandemic, we took it in turns to gather in each other’s houses. Photograph: Getty Images

 

In this Covid-19 public health emergency, how did we allow our bookshops to be deemed non-essential? Reading, I’ve found, is one of the few things that lifts me out of myself and eases my apprehensiveness and sense of entrapment in extended self-isolation. The price is that I have never been less critical. Complete absorption is enough. So it’s a blessing to have our book club.

We’ve been meeting for eight years and, until the Coronavirus pandemic, we took it in turns to gather in each other’s houses. We show up empty-handed and the host each month provides the wine and finger food. We’ve also kept the numbers within a range that can be seated comfortably in the smallest of our sitting rooms. For our June gatherings, before the summer break, we’ve met in a pergola and a poly-tunnel. And at this point we’ve got such an established rapport it’s hard to contemplate bringing new people into the group and risk upsetting the dynamic.

Rather than cancel or postpone this month’s book club we decided to meet online. It involved a gentle learning curve getting signed in to Zoom. The basic version allows 40 minutes free meeting time. With the ID code and password entered, we began to appear on screen in a row of tiles, each in our own personal space. There were glitches with the video freezing up and the microphone dropping out; and it’s worth mentioning that other devices on at the same time reduce the bandwidth needed for Zoom so switch them off or put them on airplane mode for the duration. Even so, it felt like talking from the bottom of a well.

Thankfully we have never entertained dressing up, inspired by our reading material. It didn’t occur to me to get my hair cut, or our cocooned canine Boo groomed, before the emergency measures came into force. By the end of the shutdown I expect both of us to look like Robinson Crusoe. I already appeared distinctly shaggy on screen.

The general aim of our book club each year is to read a contemporary work of fiction and non-fiction, work in translation, work from other continents, plus poetry and classics that we might have read before or missed out on, such as Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist. Purists we’re not, but discerning yes - in that we have an occasional run of un-engaging books. Debate is the life blood of book clubs, not wine; though the wine helps.

Amongst our unreservedly loved reads we’ve had Hilary Mantel’s two Thomas Cromwell volumes thus far; The Light and the Mirror is probably going to be our summer holiday pick. Everyone cherished Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, and Louise Erdrich’s La Rose. But for book clubs it’s often the imperfect offerings that work best, the flawed and the problematic reads that divide opinion, stir up strong feelings, and challenge convictions. So a surprisingly slim volume like Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton provoked an extended discussion, (was the mother really in the room with her daughter?). Susan Faludi’s In The Darkroom fired up a fantastic gender debate. And even though Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts looked like a sure-fire bet it didn’t cut it - even while presenting self-cutting as art form. We are not sparing in our pronouncements and have wisely avoided asking guest authors along for fear of spontaneous evisceration.

If we had not been online, the running order would be a catch up first to trade news and work talk. But meeting online doesn’t really facilitate chit-chat. We got down to business straight away. The person who chose the book sketched in the life of the writer and origins of the work and we had a Chairperson to stop people talking across each other. With online meetings, especially, it’s best to have one person speak with the other microphones on mute. Ideally, everyone needs to have the book read, but members are free to put the book aside if it’s doing nothing for them. A member who has since relocated had what she called, ‘the bath test’. If the book put her to sleep and dropped out of her hand into the water its sodden carcass was discarded.

Under discussion this month was Curtis Sittenfeld’s short story collection, You think it, I’ll say it. The verdict broadly was a thumbs down for a writer with an impeccably honed facility but also that chilling, arch voice of privileged white America where every one of her morally vacuous charters come across as empty, self-loathing and condescending , not least from the jolt to their sense of entitlement when Trump not Hillary got elected. In light of the above it should be said that it is generally best not to be too personally invested in the book you recommend; it has to stand or fall on its own merits, not through championing. In fact one of the most bracing and enjoyable things about our book club is how it often opens up a gap between what you supposed a writer was saying and what another member’s attentive and intelligent reading reveals.

The means by which we arrive at our monthly book choice has an element of pot-luck, and the fact that people have full-time jobs means the number of pages is a significant factor. Books of the year columns are scoured and literary festival programmes considered, and often as not it’s a newspaper review that points us to a potential contender, though we’ve learned to avoid the overly hyped. Being the only male member I read Amis, Ford, Roth, Updike, Naipaul, and Hughes alone. The merest whiff of old-boy establishment, European intellectual martinet, colonial mouthpiece, braggadocio American, phallo-centric classical world, Jesuitical mind-control, and a proposal gets knocked on the head. It’s a sport in itself when members adamantly declare their no-nos. There is a notably high rate of attrition amongst what you might think would be popular contenders, though eventually everyone gets to pick a book.

The book this month was a bit of a letdown, but the verdict on our book club’s first online Zoom meeting was that it’s clunky but it works; in actually worked better than anyone supposed. Understandably, in the present circumstances everybody joined in feeling a bit frazzled from already having worked all day online, but there is something quite draining about this way of meeting. Forty minutes is too short but you don’t want to linger. For our book club it only remained to pick a date for our next meeting. Out of force of habit I was about to ask, where? In everyone’s house of course.

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