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.