WASHINGTON, DC, Apr 29 — What happened? Six years ago, the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP] revealed an impressive improvement in knowledge about American History, among elementary and middle-school students, but now, the 2018 tests–released last week—reveal that the apparent gain has slid to 1994 levels. The Nation’s Report Card, as the assessment is…
The Colonies were humming along in the New World—and then—during the American Revolution–a disabling epidemic mangled the masses. The dreaded disease of that time was smallpox; it had a 30% mortality rate. In July of 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, a Founding Father and America’s future second president, “Tis a pestilence that walketh in Darkness.” Ironically…
With movies, concerts, bar trivia night and other live events canceled due to the coronavirus crisis, more and more people seem to be turning to literature to pass the time. Last week, TIME published a list of 30 books to hunker down with, from The Passage trilogy to Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.
While literature on its own offers solace and distraction, it can also become the backbone of community. Over the past few weeks, many digital book clubs have sprouted up across the globe, allowing people to interact with their favorite authors, discuss thorny moral questions or just see other human faces. “It’s like the book is an excuse for people to connect and look at other people,” Mike Monteiro, the co-founder of Quarantine Book Club, says.
Here are some of the most notable book clubs that will continue to offer online events going forward. Meanwhile, TIME books editor Lucy Feldman offers some tips about how to start your own community around reading.
While it might be an ideal time to finally crack open Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the 1,200-page epic is a daunting task to take on alone. The author Yiyun Li is currently leading a pilgrimage through the novel on the independent publisher A Public Space’s social media channels. “I have found that the more uncertain life is, the more solidity and structure Tolstoy’s novels provide,” Li wrote in her introductory post. “In these times, one does want to read an author who is so deeply moved by the world that he could appear unmoved in his writing.”
The group has been reading about 15 pages a day and are 100 pages in. A Public Space representative estimates that 3000 people are participating across the world, from Pakistan to Brazil to Norway. Li has been startled by the level of engagement: “I thought maybe five to ten people would read with me,” she says. She chose the novel in part because she hoped its pace and length would serve as a perfect antidote to the frenzied news cycle of the moment: “It’s a book that requires a lot of patience and support from each other,” she says. “If you are reading news or social media every day, you tend to get agitated and panicky. But this book is the opposite: it’s a long retrospective to history.”
Every weekday since March 16, the Quarantine Book Club has hosted two Zoom talks daily with a variety of authors, from Myriam Gurba to Heather B. Armstrong. Mike Monteiro and Erika Hall, two designers who live in San Francisco, started the club when their own work opportunities dried up; their audience quickly ballooned beyond their circle of friends.
“People want human connection. They’re bored, they’re freaked out,” Monteiro tells TIME. “So you get on here and you talk to somebody who’s really good in their field.”
Monteiro says that over 200 people paid the $5 admission on Tuesday to listen to the graphic designer Aaron Draplin and ask him questions; the conversations have often extended past the books and toward the world at large. The Quarantine Book Club will continue twice a day for as long as people remain at home, with proceeds going to the authors as well as Monteiro and Hall’s design studio. The science fiction author and journalist Cory Doctorow arrives on April 1.
The Seattle-based publication The Stranger is hosting a reading and discussion of Albert Camus’ The Plague, a Nobel Prize winner written in 1947 in which an epidemic sweeps through a town on the Algerian coast. “Its relevance lashes you across the face,” Stephen Metcalf wrote in the LA Times on Monday. In the first week of the book club, dozens of readers from Mexico City to Ann Arbor sent in pictures of their reading chairs. The club will complete the book on March 30.
Guinevere de la Mare and Laura Gluhanich founded this club in 2012 as a potential outlet for introverts. “It provided a place for people to be able to get out of the house and meet up with a group—and not be forced to make awkward happy hour conversation, but to sit quietly for an hour and then chat about books,” de la Mare says. Since then, the club has grown to 260 chapters around the world in 31 countries. These chapters meet, read whatever book they’ve brought for an hour silently, and then share what they’ve learned.
De La Mare hopes that the club, which converted to virtual meet-ups a few weeks ago, can play a similar role for people struggling with living in isolation: “I hope that this provides a way to combat some loneliness,” she says. De La Mare says that in Kansas City, members have formed a tight-knit community and have even been exchanging books by leaving them on each other’s patios. Meanwhile, the chapter in Genoa, Italy, has seen a doubling in participants since the country went on lockdown.
For the past two and a half years, the Lez Book Club has been meeting in groups of 12 in pubs in London, providing a space for queer women to meet and share literature. The pivot to virtual meetings in the wake of coronavirus presents both a challenge and an opportunity for founder Eleonore Pratoussy: she wants to keep the meetings safe and intimate while also opening up her community to women around the world.
“There’s such a thirst from queer women and nonbinary people and trans people to come together,” Pratoussy says. “I’m hoping that this type of virtual book club will break the boundaries, and that any type of physical barrier will be removed so that anyone can join.”
The first virtual meetings will happen on Wednesday and Thursday evening; more information can be found by joining the group’s Instagram. “Reading a book at home alone is one of the small pleasures of life,” Pratoussy says. “Sharing your thoughts and ideas with other people about the book is another small pleasure of life.”
Over the past five years, the Rebel Book Club has grown into a six-city organization with 1,000 active members who come to monthly nonfiction readings from London to Barcelona to Berlin. This month, they’re moving completely online to read and discuss the book #newpower with one of its authors, Jeremy Heimans. The book traces how the internet and social media have upended traditional power structures.
Ben Keene, the club’s co-founder, says that Rebel will continue hosting these monthly virtual book discussions, as well as a daily video chat called Rebel Book Pub, for the foreseeable future. Keene also says that 150 people have signed up for the club’s 14-day reading challenge, which set a goal for participants to finish a book in two weeks.
Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel
The Literary Hub is virtually hosting the type of programming that would ordinarily take place in bookstores around the country: book tour events, readings and Q&As. The first episode featured Kevin Nguyen talking about his debut novel New Waves—a heist narrative set inside the New York start-up world.
Six European publishing houses have teamed up to create this weekly Zoom series in which they take turns presenting a book from their catalogs. (The selected titles are sometimes discounted.) First up on March 26 is The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, a family drama set before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Eric Cervini, a historian of LBGTQ+ politics and culture, has started a book and movie club on his Instagram page that is racking up thousands of views per video. He’s currently reading and discussing James Baldwin’s 1956 Giovanni’s Room, about an American in Paris.
Start Your Own
None of these book clubs may be right for you—or maybe you’d like to form your own community. Below, TIME books editor Lucy Feldman has some tips on how to get started and lead your own discussion.
The book: You can have a good book club discussion about a bad book, but it’s always more fun when members connect to the material (and in these times, who wants to invest energy in a book that feels like homework?). For your first meeting, start with an accessible novel — one with interesting characters, which are often more fun to debate than plot points.
The discussion: The best discussions arise out of questions that are open-ended so everyone can bring their own perspectives and offer more than simple “yes, I agree” or “no, I don’t” answers. As the leader, you’ll want to come prepared with more questions than you might think necessary. It’s also nice to ask a couple members to have a question ready so you can tap them when conversation starts to lag or you notice that they’re not getting involved (this is especially helpful if you have a member on the shy side who wants to participate but feels more comfortable knowing in advance what they’re going to say).
Encourage people to share their personal perspectives, but try to guide everyone to use “I” statements so they don’t accidentally alienate other members—and be prepared to mediate if people disagree.
And finally, remember that the most important thing right now is to bring people together and lift each other up. If you lose track of the topic at hand, well, that probably means you’re having the conversation you need to be having right now.
Despite the coronavirus crisis that has upended everything, we plan to move forward with 2020 Grateful American Book Prize competition. The Prize is awarded annually to high quality, 7th to 9th grade-level, historical fiction, and non-fiction, about the events and personalities that have shaped the United States since its founding. The winner will receive $13,000, a lifetime pass to the New-York…
Who doesn’t love a story about the Old West? Particularly, a good, historical depiction about what it was like to domesticate the wild American frontier. Take buffalo hunter, army scout, gunfighter and lawman, Bartholomew “Bat” Masterson. His last shoot out was on the streets of Dodge City, Kansas, on April 16, 1881. Masterson was in Tombstone, Arizona when he received word that his brother, Jim…
By By Dennis Drabelle for The Washington Post
April 2, 2020
It hit me at the end of January, after a pleasant evening spent catching up with saved episodes of “Masterpiece” and other PBS shows that dramatize classic novels. Once again, all the sources were British.
Concurrently airing were E.M. Forster’s “Howards End,” Jane Austen’s “Sanditon,” Wilkie Collins’s “The Woman in White” and Frank Tallis’s “Vienna Blood,” a detective series set in the early Freudian era and based on novels by an English psychologist.
Going online, I found the “Masterpiece” archives stuffed with sagas derived from the likes of Dickens, Gaskell, Trollope and Hardy. Among the dozens of series listed as available for viewing, the only one with a recognizably American pedigree was Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” which has been — forgive me, Greta Gerwig — filmed to death.
Why does PBS outsource almost all of its costume dramas to the Brits, in some cases simply importing and screening BBC productions as Masterpiece series? Why not look to the American canon for worthy novels in which men sport top hats, women get laced into corsets and carriages make their gravel-crunching way to glittering receptions or illicit assignations?
Let me make the case for a handful of vintage American novels as bully material for the multi-episode treatment that “Masterpiece” does so well.
In “Pudd’nhead Wilson” (1894), Mark Twain recycles the look-alike device from his earlier novel “The Prince and the Pauper,” but with a wrinkle. This time, one look-alike is “white” and the other “black” — quotation marks required because the near-doubles are light-skinned males born on the same day in 1830, in the same Missouri town. We’re back in Huckleberry Finn-land, where race puts conventional morality to the test.
The heroine of “Pudd’nhead,” a slave named Roxana, switches the two infants — one her own child by a white man out of wedlock, the other the legitimate heir to her master, whose wife died in childbirth. With the exchange, Roxana ensures that her son will be raised as a spoiled aristocrat and the true heir as a mistreated slave. The question becomes this: Will blood tell, or will the boys’ fates be determined by nurture?
Thought-provoking and sensational (there is a murder, followed by a courtroom showdown), calling for casting that illustrates how artificial racial distinctions can be, “Pudd’nhead Wilson” should make for great TV.
The eight-armed monster of Frank Norris’s “The Octopus” (1901) is the fictional Pacific and Southwestern Railroad, a thinly disguised version of the real Southern Pacific. The P&S shows its true colors in the first chapter, when one of its trains mows down a flock of sheep crossing the tracks. The railroad also bribes legislators, but its greatest sin is harassing farmers it informally allowed to settle on some of its land in California. Unless the farmers agree to pay outrageous prices to obtain title, the railroad will forcibly evict them. The farmers band together, setting the stage for a bloody shootout based on an actual incident from the year 1880.
One of the few American novels that rival “Moby-Dick” in scale and power, “The Octopus” would have thrived on the widescreen CinemaScope treatment of the 1950s. Here’s betting that it will do just as well on today’s jumbo plasma-TV screens.
Although Norris was a discovery of longtime Atlantic Monthly editor William Dean Howells, the protege dismissed his mentor’s fiction as having “the drama of a broken teacup, . . . the excitement of an afternoon call.” Norris must have forgotten about Howells’s most ambitious novel, “A Hazard of New Fortunes” (1890).
Set in New York City and centered on an institution that Howells knew well, a start-up magazine, “A Hazard” was inspired by an incident that shook him to the core: the kangaroo-court trials of men loosely associated — if associated at all — with Chicago’s Haymarket Riot of 1886. On its way to a brutal climax in which two major characters are killed, “A Hazard of New Fortunes” smashes teacups right and left.
“We know that in reality marriage is dog cheap,” says a character in “A Hazard,” “and anybody can have it for the asking.” But for Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” (1899), marriage is dog-leash hard to escape from. After the book caused an uproar in Chopin’s native St. Louis and beyond, the author portrayed herself as hardly more than a bystander: “I never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did. . . [and] when I found out what she was up to . . . it was . . . too late.”
With its seductive setting (New Orleans and the Gulf Coast) and its unblinking scrutiny of a woman who puts her own pleasure first, “The Awakening” is a liberating novel that doesn’t preach.
Speaking of preaching, a man who does it for a living is the titular hero of Harold Frederic’s “The Damnation of Theron Ware” (1896). Ware has the misfortune to be a liberal Methodist minister assigned to a conservative congregation. Moreover, he is not only married to the wrong person but also struggling toward a new self-understanding. Ware learns a lot from hanging out with two other women, one of whom is a debt-raiser — a preacher who swoops into town and whips up a stingy congregation into a frenzy of pocket-emptying.
With its shrewd characterizations and brilliant dialogue, “The Damnation of Theron Ware” is ready-made for the “Masterpiece” approach. Ideally, it and “The Awakening” would run back to back, underscoring the point that traditional gender roles were changing as early as the 1890s.
So there you go, PBS: five American novels packed with drama, period costumes and, to boot, controversies that still resonate today. You can supply your own gravel.
Dennis Drabelle is a former contributing editor of Book World.