Amid lockdown, digital book clubs offer readers an opportunity to connect, combat isolation

During the pandemic, and the extended lockdown, several people have turned to reading as a way to establish connections and communicate with friends, and often, complete strangers.

Shreemayee Das July 31, 2020 16:46:33 IST
Amid lockdown, digital book clubs offer readers an opportunity to connect, combat isolation

What do you think of when you think of a reader? Thanks to teenage dramas, most of us conjure up a very similar image in our minds. A shy, quiet kid, with huge black-rimmed glasses, and decidedly uncool clothes, carrying half the library in their arms. They’re usually the nerds or the geeks, or whatever the trending term for uncool kid is, and they don’t have a lot of friends. I have to admit, I think of Bran from the Game of Thrones series, when he stopped being cool, and was just know-it-all and annoying. Reading, for these kids, is a solitary activity, a means to escape their lonely reality. And, indeed, reading is seen to be an individual activity more often than not. I remember being told as a child that I read more than my best friend because she wasn’t as lonely as I was.

But that wasn’t always the case. You can’t read an essay on literature and life in the Victorian Age without it mentioning that reading was a social activity for the Victorians, especially people of the lower classes. Reading aloud to your family was common, says Sally Mitchell in her essay on the topic. Families would gather around one lamp in the evening, the only source of light they could afford, and read the latest installment of Dickens’ serialised novel. This was especially true for those fans of the author who were illiterate but could follow the story if it was read out to them. Mention of novels and what their opinion on them was common even in their letters, their way of sharing what they were reading with their friends.

During the pandemic, and the extended lockdown, several people have turned to reading as a way to establish connections and communicate with friends, and often, complete strangers. Smriti Sant, a bookstagrammer, recently started an Online Reading Party. Conducted on the zoom app, this involved a group of readers, who could read during the call, and then discuss the books at the end of a 30-minute reading session. The idea was to help those readers who were struggling to continue reading, or struggling with their attention spans, with the stress of the pandemic. The meet-up was informal and easy-going. You could keep your video off if you wanted and everyone could pick their own book, and read it at this time. Sant believes this encourages more people to join since they weren’t confined to one book that a person might have no interest in, and the post-reading discussion too is more diverse and allows for people to express their own identities, interests and personalities.

Author Vivek Tejuja, whose first novel, So Now You Know was published last year, is another person who regularly organises and participates in virtual book discussions, virtual book clubs and buddy-reads. He’s currently leading an Instagram group which is reading The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. “I just wanted to read it with more people so I can actually read and finish it and keep going and not drop it. It takes a lot of effort to read a big book,” he says, about what inspired him to start this group. He welcomes the different perspectives that come with reading, and discussing, a book together.

For book clubs in Mumbai, the shift to a digital platform was the only option once the lockdown was announced. T.A. R{who}D.I.S. Book Club, a Mumbai-based book club which met once a month since 2014, had to cancel their meeting in March because of the lockdown. That was when founders Sanaya Fernandes and Angelique Jacquet decided to move the meetings online. They now have a designated WhatsApp group which not only discusses books, and reads of the month, they also check up on each other, conduct fun activities daily like crosswords and quizzes, and share highlights of their day. Fernandes also shares a short story every day, for people to read something fresh. People regularly share photos of what they cooked or what their child was up to, and the group aims to be warm and supportive, and help each other get through this time. They encourage people to share their frustrations and to rant, since people might not have easy access for that in the lockdown. The read-of-the-month is still ongoing, with members choosing one particular book to read and discuss. Fernandes emphasises that all activities are voluntary, and members can join in whenever they have the time and headspace. “Why add unnecessary pressure at an already stressful time?” is how Fernandes puts it. For a lot of them, this is a new space and the other members are strangers. However, Fernandes believes that the daily discussions have brought people closer. “They kind of know each other now,” she says. “It’s not just the activities. The group gets active at around 11 o’clock, not too early, not too late. And that’s when people check up on each other and share things like “I’m going to make this” or “Work is going like this”, so you tend to become friends, at least, to a certain extent, even if you haven’t really met the person.”

The Reader’s Tribe, another book club, run by Divya Mehta, used to meet fortnightly before the lockdown. Similar to Sant’s reading party, they too didn’t decide on a fixed book; members were encouraged to read and share what they had read in that time. “I don’t want to isolate any reader based on what they read,” says Mehta, adding that reading and discussing different books helps to form a better understanding of a person, outside of the regular conversations around books. It’s also a great way of sharing knowledge and learning new things. Mehta didn’t have plans to start a virtual book club, but at the beginning of the lockdown, she got so many requests to move to digital events that she was forced to consider it. “There has been no loss of connection from offline to online,” she says, admitting that she herself was surprised by this. The group sees participation from regular members as well as people in different parts of the world. Mehta talks about one member of the book club, stuck in a hotel room in Dubai during the pandemic, who’s one of the most active members of the club. He joins every session and is the most enthusiastic to participate, “it’s his only link with the outside world,” she says. Every other call might be from his family or work, and nothing really is happening in his life, since he can’t go out of his room, so the book club gives him some form of escape, some way to connect with others. “He’s always one of the first to join,” she laughs.

For most of these meetings, Zoom is the preferred app. A link is shared to a WhatsApp list or a closed Facebook group, and members can join the call. T.A.R.{who} D.I.S., however, conducts all meet-ups on WhatsApp as Fernandes feels that it’s the most convenient platform for people, especially for those who can’t take out one or two hours solely for this, but can scroll up, read the conversation and join in whenever possible. The groups usually rely on people passing on the word to their friends, and have an existing member recommend someone new. Fernandes and Sant both have had trouble with bots and trolls in the past, which makes them warier about adding new members. But virtual meetups also have their own advantage. People from different cities and even countries can join in, which allows everyone to get a new perspective on things, for instance, how the pandemic is being handled in different places. It’s something they talk about in every meet, you can’t avoid it, after all.

Have reading patterns changed? Are more people reading short stories or lighter reads? There’s definitely a conscious decision to read more upbeat things, but most members seem to be taking this time to finish their long to-be-read lists. “It’s coping with stress. It’s not going to be the same for everyone,” says Fernandes. There are members who are reading short stories and novellas which they finish quickly and it gives them a sense of accomplishment. The WhatsApp group allows people to share their daily reads, and feel that sense of achievement when they can say they finished a book. Sant adds that people in the reading circle are also re-reading some of their favourite books or comforting and familiar reads.

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Imagine seeing a really funny meme and not being able to share it with your closest friends. Reading can be a little like that, if you’re alone in the pandemic, and have no one to share your current reads and favourite authors with. Even a discussion like “Who should play this character in a movie adaptation?”, one of the questions that come up in the T.A.R{who}D.I.S. discussions often, can be so refreshing and fun, after a day of COVID-related news. At a time when we can’t share our lives with our friends, we can’t go out to eat together, or watch a live concert together, books seem to be the way to share our lives, our likes and some aspect of our monotonous days. People are also using this interest to make friends. Reading isn’t just for lonely kids anymore. It’s something you can actually even do with other people.

— Illustration by Satwik Gade

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