Many used to scoff at the way technological advancements has made us prone to living our lives online, but when the pandemic hit last year, it became apparent to everyone how much of a commodity – and very often, a necessity – being online is.
Families who couldn’t visit each other, but could see each other and talk to each other through video call; companies that were able to continue with their business almost undisrupted because their workers had access to WiFi and technology; events which were able to go on because there were people watching at home.
As an able-bodied person, I took for granted the things we do in our daily lives (visit family and friends, going to work, attending a concert or book talk). Being able to take part in things from the comfort of my house became such a fun thing to do, and I truly hope this pandemic has been a lesson in terms of accessibility and how a lot of things that were deemed “impossible” were simply needs not met by the various associations that have now found a way to make it work. Disabled and chronically ill people have talked about this for years and we need to respond.
I moved to Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in August 2019. When the pandemic hit around March 2020, I was still getting acquainted with the city, and trying to find my own rhythm in it.
Joining a book club was pretty much the only thing I had dedicated myself to since the beginning of that year, and I barely made it to three live meetings when the government started applying preventive measures in regards to COVID-19.
I admit that at the very beginning, I too was convinced that COVID-19 was nothing to panic about (after all, that was the news I was hearing: it’s nothing worse than the flu, don’t panic), but I quickly understood it was certainly more than ‘just the flu’.
I lost two (recently acquired) jobs last year because, suddenly, businesses had to close doors and didn’t need staff anymore, and I consider myself lucky enough that I was able to continue to work two days a week at the indie bookshop I had started at back in January.
Even before the pandemic, the bookstore owners had suggested starting a couple of book clubs, one for people trying to learn about social justice issues through reading, another for people learning Dutch. With the new measures we realised these meetings would not happen in-person, but we wanted to try them online nevertheless.
And so it began: we chose a list of books for the year, we made flyers and invited people, and once a month we started meeting via Zoom to talk about the books and what we learned from them.
To note that when people first showed interest in the book clubs, things were still open and meetings with a certain amount of people were still allowed. By the time our first meeting was about to take place, everything was closed and no meetings of any kind were allowed.
One thing I immediately noticed was that a lot of people who signed up for both book clubs ended up showing interest in it once it became possible to meet in-person. Which I understand; many are more in it for the added possibility of a night out, a reason to get out of the house. Others are more than done with online meetings at work and school, so the last thing they want is to look at yet another screen at 8 p.m. on a Wednesday evening.
But many joined. I think the biggest group we had – and we are two small groups because, read above, we started this off during a pandemic – was about five people, and my experience so far has been very positive. Most people who joined from the beginning are still attending whenever possible.
The largest online book club group I was part of contained 15 people.
Personally, it worked well, but I can only talk as an attendee, since this was my experience joining Bored To Death Book Club, hosted by Esmée de Heer.
I was very curious to learn how her experience as a host of a book club that was already popular pre-pandemic had worked out online, so I asked her to compare all instances in which she has hosted and organised the book club: pre, during and, well, at a time when the pandemic is still here, but most people are vaccinated and meeting up again.
A few of the differences Esmée pointed out, are things I noticed while participating in these meetings, but also as a host myself.
The most noticeable changes concerned meeting time and how people tend to monologue more online than in-person, “we talked about the book for a lot longer!” she notes, “Our usual book club is an hour of book talk and an hour of regular chatting, but sometimes the online book club could take a full two hours, where we just talked about the book. It’s not always easy to get a smooth conversation going online – especially if you are with a big group – so people try to say everything they have once they get their turn. This makes it harder to ask questions and have a more free-flowing conversation.”
Her preference falls definitely into the in-person category, especially because it takes a toll when you are stuck in online meetings all day, to just end up in another meeting in the evening. “I also miss the chit-chat and loudness of hanging out with a big group, and the joy of having a drink in a dark bar and getting strange looks from other guests, because that weird book club is screaming about books again.”
But she also noticed some changes when returning to in-person after a whole year of seeing each other on screen, especially since COVID-19 is still out to get us, “some people are understandingly apprehensive about meeting up with strangers, so it was definitely quieter than usual. Besides that, though, the book club was filled with regulars and we all slid back into our in-person book club as if we had never stopped. It was honestly really nice to know that even after more than a year of online meetings, it will be easy to go back to in-person meetings.”
As an advantage of in-person meetings, Esmée underlines the spontaneity that real-life interactions allow, which lack during zoom meetings, but she also concedes that it is nice to be able to book club in pyjamas, and not having to go out on rainy nights: “The major pro is that book clubbing in-person actually feels relaxing instead of like work. Doing the online meetings meant I had to be ‘on’ a lot more than in-person. There I can relax and let the conversation happen instead of actively steering it. For me, this is the reason why I’ll go back to in-person book clubbing. I host the book club because I love doing it, and kind of lost that feeling while being online all the time.”
She also brings up perhaps the most important and greatest issue in this whole online/offline conversation: “it becomes a lot less accessible again. We had some new book clubbers from all around the world and people who might not have joined if the meeting was in person.”
I agree with most points here. Even though I am fully vaccinated, I still feel unsure about meeting people in person, and I know it’s still a gamble, so I’m trying to take small steps and do it only in conditions where I feel safe, with smaller groups and social distancing.
After a first in-person meeting with one of the book clubs I host – which is still a small gathering – I noticed how happy and eager people are to meet up, and how much more fluid the conversation goes. I feel less like a host, and more like part of the group.
On the other hand, inclusivity is key, and we cannot continue to act as if inclusivity isn’t a matter that affects us all. The pandemic has proved that it is possible to make the accommodations disabled people have been asking for for years. We are now listening because it suddenly affects able-bodied people, but disabled people have shared their views on accessibility for far longer. This is not the proper way to engage in a community that disabled people have always been a part of. We need to continue to work towards more inclusive environments. This means we need to push, individually or as part of a group, for that change.
Are you joining a new activity or pursuing a career at a new company? Ask about inclusivity, ask about the ways you, and they, are prepared to make those spaces accessible. If we continue to ask and demand, changes will be taking place.
As for the book clubs I host, we are still leaving the online option open for those who prefer it, because if there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it is that some things are never going to be the same again – and in this instance, it is hopefully for the better.
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