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NEW YORK, April 23 — Since the onset of the pandemic, book clubs, which had fallen out of fashion, have been reborn on social networks where they are attracting a new generation of influencers. These new forums for literary discussion have been buoyed by a growing enthusiasm for reading as an antidote to the Covid-inspired lassitude.
“Welcome to my book club” is not necessarily the first thing that you might expect Kaia Gerber to say. But since the pandemic began, the young American model has regularly been inviting major names in literature and other media personalities to discuss books on her Instagram account. In March of this year, she spoke for 30 minutes with New York bookseller Sarah McNally about the satirical novel Severance by Ling Ma, and the future of independent bookstores. The discussion was followed by tens of thousands of internet users, as are all of Gerber’s book club meets.
And she is not the only celebrity to have recently emerged in a growing ecosystem of literary influencers, who are known as “Bookstammers” or “BookTokers” on social networks. Having been mocked in the past, in recent years, book clubs have become increasingly popular. Setting aside the stereotype of old-fashioned reading groups peopled by the middle-aged middle classes, they are now the stomping ground of self-confessed bookaholics, who for the most part are educated, urban, female readers.
What, you may wonder, motivates them to join these clubs? For the most part, it is the pleasure of discussion and a chance to discover works that they might never have encountered were it not for recommendations from high-profile literary pundits. Certain celebrities like Reese Witherspoon, Florence Welch and even the Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker-Bowles, have been more than happy to take on this role for wildly eclectic gatherings of readers.
“Books serve as a pretext”
This wide diversity of profiles is one effect of the pandemic on literary salons. While health restrictions have forced most book clubs to migrate online, the fact that they are now virtual has enabled them to reach out to a wider audience. While some new book club members have joined for a chance to peruse the libraries of their favourite influencers, others are keen to compensate for a lack of social connection. This was the case for Delia, age 26, who ultimately started her own group.
Having found herself without a job at the beginning of the health crisis, the young woman, armed with her books, moved back in to live with her parents. “For the first time in my life, I could take time to read,” she explains. Having rediscovered the joys of the written word, Delia went on to create her own online, French-language gathering, “Overbookées,” which she describes on Instagram as “a safe space for people worn out by news networks.” She now holds regular discussions with her 500 followers on books that relate to her pet subjects such as Sœurs en écologie (Sisters in Ecology) by Pascale d’Erm, Féminismes & Pop Culture (Feminism and Pop Culture) by Jennifer Padjemi or La puissance des mères (The Power of Mothers) by Fatima Ouassak.
“I realised that I was not able to talk about these topics with many people in my immediate social circle, especially since the onset of the health crisis. After the end of the second lockdown, I began to think about a project that would allow me to explore these subjects in discussions with other readers that were not phony or overly polemical. That is when I hit upon the idea of a book club,” explains Delia. It was nonetheless a surprising choice for an avid reader who had never before participated in such a gathering.
“The books serve as pretext. I really wanted to talk about subjects that I see as essential, and to discuss them with people whom I might never have met without ‘Overbookées’,” she adds. Although Delia initially planned to restrict the book club to female readers, she changed her mind so that everyone could take part in debates on such topics as racism and eco-feminism. Having said that, the overwhelming majority of the members of Overbookées are women.
A community of largely female readers
The phenomenon is not unique to Delia’s book club, but one that is often seen in the world of publishing. Numerous studies have shown that women are more avid readers than men. One in particular, conducted by the UK-based consultant Audience Agency, also reported that women readers consume more fiction titles than their male counterparts. And some publishers like Belfond are hoping to take advantage of this regular consumption with the launch of their own virtual book clubs.
For four years, Carine Verschaeve has held regular discussions with librarians, booksellers, bloggers and other literature enthusiasts in the “Le Cercle des lecteurs Belfond” (the Belfond Readers Circle). In all, the book club has more than a thousand members who share their opinions on novels in the Cercle Belfond collection on Facebook. “I had my heart set on creating a space where readers could meet to discuss our titles,” explains the publisher. “It is not always easy to create readers’ communities when the authors are not Francophone, as is the case with those in the Cercle Belfond.”
The online world has also proved to be very useful for facilitating exchanges with American and British writers like Julie Kibler, Emily Elgar and Hannah Richell, once shyness has been set aside. “It is a bit like it was in school: Not many people really want to take the floor in a book club. Especially when it involves asking a non-Francophone author questions in English. However, the way our book club has been set up has enabled us to get over this language barrier,” explains Carine Verschaeve.
Although the book club focuses on works published by the Cercle Belfond, it is not at all a promotional tool. “What is interesting in this type of community is that it also encourages people to go to bookshops. Not just to buy our titles, but for all kinds of books. Let’s not forget that reading and books are what really count.”
Show me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are
The health crisis has demonstrated for everyone, even those who were unconvinced, that “reading is chic.” These days, celebrities have tired of posting photos of their escapades, instead they are sharing more personal shots of their libraries or books that await them on their bedside tables. It is a paradigm shift that has attracted attention from leaders in the world of tech start-ups, most notably Padmasree Warrior.
Having spent most of her career at the helm of large groups like Cisco, Motorola and Nio, the Indian-American entrepreneur is now devoting her time to online literary salons. Padmasree Warrior has recently launched Fable, a start-up that allows its users to join book clubs moderated by experts and famous authors including such leading lights as Paulo Coelho, Chitra Divakaruni and Jasmine Guillory. The most daring new members can even launch their own book clubs and set out in the footsteps of Oprah Winfrey. But all of this comes at a cost: US$69 for a premium annual subscription.
Although Fable aims to make its mark in a sector dominated by the giant Goodreads, it is also hoping to stand out by making a contribution to mental health. “I grew up in a small town in India where books were my refuge from boredom and stress. There is now growing evidence to support what I intuitively understood — reading is a powerful tool to improve mental wellness,” explains Padmasree Warrior on the start-up’s website. “I started Fable so that all of us can fill the micro-moments in our hectic lives with stories.” Whether you are looking for social interaction or eager to look after your personal well-being, with the vast choice that is available, it now seems that there is a book club for all of us. — ETX Studio