As fellow Rioters have pointed out, there are plenty of good reasons to join online book clubs, even when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic. Besides the obvious advantage of giving you a wider range of books to choose from and people to connect with, they can also be a good choice for those who are more introverted or who prefer to attend book club from the comfort of their living room. Online book clubs can also mix up the traditional sit and chat format, with everything from discussion forums to Instagram lives being used to talk about books, allowing readers to connect with the text in multiple ways. Readers may also find it easier to find book clubs interested in specific niches or ones that will help them meet a reading goal, and if nothing else there may be less of a sense of obligation to show up if it feels like the club is less dependent on your physical presence.
Many of these groups, like so many other aspects of the reading world today, have found a presence on Bookstagram. Whether it’s a group reading through the classics, one that forms around a book chosen by the owner of an account, or a separate site hosted on a Facebook group or through Patreon, the Bookstagram book club is a strong presence for anyone in the bookish Instagram world. In addition to the more structured book club options, users often ask for participants in buddy reads or form ad-hoc reading groups after finding others who share their love for similar titles. While some of these clubs try to replicate the in-person experience by arranging to meet over Zoom or another video platform, many of them welcome book discussion via Instagram comment or direct message, shaking up the traditional book club structure and providing flexibility for readers across time zones and work schedules. Some accounts are connected to larger, celebrity driven bookclubs, but many are run by ordinary Bookstagrammers who manage their book clubs in between jobs, children, and other offline obligations. In this way, the Bookstagram book club takes on a feeling similar to in-person clubs that connect everyday readers with one another, except for the fact that you’re potentially connecting with members from around the world, rather than simply other readers in your city.
At the beginning of quarantine, cut off from bookish conversations with my colleagues, I decided to go from watcher to participant and start a Bookstagram account. While I didn’t (and still don’t) have any desire for it to gain a large following or become that much of time commitment, I did like that it let me more freely and casually exchange opinions and reviews on books with other users. Soon I began chatting, through comments and direct messages, with fellow Bookstagrammers across the country. When one account announced they were beginning a Patreon book club, I signed up and from there connected with other accounts in the same group, eager to read their thoughts on that month’s pick. After enjoying the camaraderie of that experience, I sought out other group reading experiences, including a book club focusing on classics and buddy reads for titles that had been languishing on my TBR. Each of these interactions, which have mostly occurred over Instagram direct messaging, has been a bright spot in the midst of isolation.
I’ve tried in-person book clubs pre-pandemic but, usually due to the fluctuating commitment of the members, it hasn’t been a huge success. By contrast, the discussions on Bookstagram seemed rich with the thoughts of readers who had actually read the book and were eager to share their thoughts. Does the self-selecting nature of this online world automatically lead to more buy-in from members? In an offline book club, you might occasionally need to deal with a book that doesn’t appeal to you and decide whether to slog through it or bail on that meeting. Online, however, it’s easier to dip in and out. Don’t care for this month’s choice? No worries, you can join back in later or find a new club all together and chances are that most of the other readers won’t notice your absence. There’s no pressure to admit to DNFing or letting other commitments cause you to cancel your meeting when you can hide behind a phone screen. Additionally, there’s no need to tolerate the members of your book club in everyday life. The one person who always interrupts or likes to read 600 page bricks when the rest of you want something light isn’t as direct of an issue and even if they are, it’s much easier to exit a virtual book club.
Lest I sound too down on online book clubs, and technology in general, I should reiterate that I love the Bookstagram discussions I’m a part of and those book clubs I’ve joined elsewhere online. When it comes to social media, especially in a visual medium like Instagram, it can be easy to become a passive consumer of content, occasionally throwing out likes but not going any deeper. Joining these book clubs has given me a way to interact with new people and be exposed to opinions about books that might not otherwise enter my bubble. While I do sometimes wonder if interacting online, instead of in-person, can be detrimental to my overall socialization abilities, I think I’m gaining in my ability to write about what I’ve read and learn from a diverse group of fellow readers. For this reason, I’ll continue to eagerly sign up for the Bookstagram discussions that pique my interest, and maybe, once this pandemic is over, even try to meet up in real life with some bookish friends from online.