Book clubs have been an important part of American reading life since the Book of the Month Club was founded nearly a century ago. Some would argue book clubs were significant even before that. In the 18th century, women who were excluded from attending college created reading circles, and Founding Father Ben Franklin even had a book club of his own. An estimated 5 million people belonged to a book club before the pandemic. With the breakdown of many aspects of social life during this time, some might expect book clubs to be in trouble. However, the opposite has occurred. Book clubs aren’t just surviving. If anything, they are increasingly popular.
Book clubs are thriving virtually
Where book clubs historically met in libraries, coffee shops, or members’ homes, they’ve moved into virtual spaces. Whether through Zoom meetings, video chats, or social media groups, book lovers found ways to keep their reading and conversations going through quarantines and stay-at-home orders.
Many book clubs have even seen an increase in membership and participation throughout the pandemic. According to Guinevere de la Mare, co-founder of The Silent Book Club: “We saw a huge jump in online engagement over the first year of the pandemic, and we have continuously added new virtual chapters around the world. So far in 2021, we added 35 new chapters in nine countries, and we currently have 286 active chapters in 40 countries.”
Lina Abascal, the founder and host of The Junior High Book Club, also saw a rise in participation in 2020. She said, “Zoom allowed people from outside of the L.A. area to join, which was great. So, for a while, the numbers on Zoom were much larger than the 10–15 we had seen in person.” Abascal feels good that her book club is meeting in person again — safely and vaccinated — but she understands why book clubs became so important to readers during the pandemic. “Showing up for an hour once a month to a social commitment can make people feel accountable,” she said. “A book club isn’t as simple as a happy hour Zoom, you have to spend that month reading the book. I think electing to do that and spending time in that positive, enriching way was appealing to members of our book club, and other book clubs in general.”
And through social media
Aside from in-person book clubs that shifted online, younger generations are getting into book clubs through social media platforms like Bookstagram on Instagram and BookTok on TikTok. These new formats help isolated young people find community and are evolving the old-fashioned stereotypes of book clubs to something that feels new and fresh.
It’s clear the pandemic made people appreciate their book clubs more than ever, thanks to the creative use of technology. A BookBrowse Survey of more than 3,000 book club members found half of the respondents said their book clubs were more important to them in 2020 than in 2019. While they may shift and change as our social lives start returning to pre-pandemic days, book clubs will remain an important part of the literary community for a long time.
About the Author: Alison Doherty
Alison is a writing teacher and part time assistant professor living in Brooklyn, New York. She has an MFA from The New School in writing for children and teenagers. She loves writing about books on the Internet, listening to audiobooks on her way to work, and reading anything with a twisty plot or a happily ever after.