My book club was the first to concede defeat. Before my gym, hair salon and therapist accepted that there could be no more business as usual as the coronavirus took hold in the UK, the host of my book club got in touch to say that our March meet-up was off.
The news came as no great surprise. Despite best-laid plans to meet every six weeks, our activity had always been sporadic -our last meeting was in December. We had not even settled on our next book yet, such was our preemptive commitment to self-isolation. As our host said, the book club had already been in quarantine for months.
As the Covid-19 crisis has confined us to our homes, a sliver of a silver lining (entirely inadequate, of course, but we look for them all the same) is that it has provided a chance to catch up on our reading. Being mostly solitary and indoors, it is one of the few pursuits that remain unchanged in this new world, while affording us access to others. With every connected device a potential portal for anxiety, it may never have felt so necessary to escape into the printed word.
People have started sharing pictures of books they have stockpiled for self-isolation under the hashtag #CoronavirusReadingStack. “Panic buying,” one woman said of her new Anne Enright. “Do I have enough books to last?” fretted another, as though her library choices were toilet paper.
The internet has allowed new book clubs to form, in spite of self-isolation and lockdowns. In the US, Quarantine Book Club offers readers the chance to “talk to authors without touching anyone”, holding live online Q&As ($5 for a login link). In the UK, Salon London have launched a fortnightly book club and upped the frequency of their live author talks to stream on YouTube twice a week, after observing an increase of 20% in viewers. German tennis player Andrea Petkovic launched her Racquet Book Club on Instagram (their first pick was String Theory by tennis-fan David Foster Wallace).
On Twitter, Underland author Robert Macfarlane has already recruited hundreds to his global read-along of The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, under the hashtag #CoReadingVirus. Some participants have even purchased extra copies of the book for those who cannot afford them.
“Literature has always done such an extraordinary job of provoking community and conversation – it’s no surprise to me that it should be doing so, so powerfully now,” says Macfarlane.
Londoner Tania Hardcastle had been meaning to start a book club for a while before coronavirus cleared her schedule: “I thought it would be the perfect time to start.”
She and her friends Sharlene Gandhi and Priya Shah received such a response to their idea of a “virtual book club” on Twitter – including from Caroline Criado Perez, the author of the first book they chose, Invisible Women – that they had to cap membership at 15 people. Their planned Google hangout “might become unmanageable otherwise,” says Hardcastle.
Communities have not just formed online; they have migrated there. “Real life” book clubs more disciplined than mine have already relocated to virtual meeting rooms such as Google Hangouts, or the suddenly ubiquitous video-conferencing platform Zoom.
Sarah West, an academic based in York, has hosted her seven-person book club around her dining table each month, for three years. Last Monday, they gathered to discuss Lara Williams’ Supper Club on Zoom. After initial hellos – “so that we could see each other’s setup: ‘Here I am sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea’, ‘Here I am at my table with a glass of wine’” – cameras were turned off to save on bandwidth and batteries.
Without cues from body language, and with only one person able to speak at a time, the discussion required “more active management” than usual, says West. But “it went really well – so well that I woke up the next day and thought, ‘God, I haven’t cleaned up after book club last night.’ It was quite a long time before I went downstairs and realised it had just been me, sat on the sofa. It felt really genuine.”
With her energies split between work and her two young children, West says it was a relief to find that her book club would not be disrupted. “I have confidence that, at least once a month, it’s going to feel like I’ve had a night off, being sociable.”
The relaxed formality of book clubs might be a boon as we adjust to the age of the “video hang”, lending structure to an unfamiliar and often stilted interaction. Virtual pub quizzes are proving similarly popular right now.
Pam Cottman’s book club, based in Beaconsfield, has moved through several platforms in 15 years – from email to WhatsApp and now, Zoom. All bar two of the eight active members are over 60; Cottman predicts that their first virtual meeting next Tuesday, to discuss The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, will mostly be given over to tech troubleshooting. But as a former teacher turned resilience coach, she says connection, community and “holding on to a bit of normality” will be crucial to weathering the weeks and months to come.
Books themselves can help to inspire resilience, says Cottman – her group’s last pick, The Choice by Edith Eger, an Auschwitz survivor, is a case in point. “In so many stories of challenge and trauma, there’s hope and positivity and that mindset shift that enables us to keep going,” she says.
Macfarlane says that he chose The Living Mountain – a “masterpiece of close observation” of the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland, and the book he has given as a gift more than any other – so as to venture beyond our quarantine confines. “Obviously we can’t reach distant landscapes at the moment, but we can read and dream our way into them,” he says.
Shepherd wrote the slender volume during the second world war, and her reflections on love, loss and goodness are set against a backdrop of distant disaster. Macfarlane calls it a “book of beauty born of crisis”, with echoes of the one that we are currently facing; but, as the first choice for #CoReadingVirus, it is “neither a work of escapism nor a work that confronts” coronavirus head-on.
His ambitions for his book club are modest, Macfarlane says, but not frivolous. “I don’t see reading as turning away from what’s happening. Dreaming other places into being, other ways of being – these are powerful needs.”
It is noteworthy that as the 2011 medical-thriller Contagion has experienced a resurgence and the docu-series Pandemic trends on Netflix, none of the book clubs I spoke to had themed their reading material around the coronavirus. It suggests, that in connecting over literature, we are seeking to align over a common experience – other than our shared experience of Covid-19.
“I think escapism is going to be the way forward,” says West, of her book club. Their current pick, a collection of poetry by Fran Lock, predates the pandemic, but its title? Contains Mild Peril.
Online book clubs that you can join
The Guardian’s reading group
How about our very own? On the first Tuesday of each month, we put a theme or author to a public vote and settle on a book chosen by you. Prolific reader and publisher Sam Jordison then hosts an online discussion every Tuesday where he explains the book’s history, researches any questions you ask and even sets up live chats with the author – while you get on with the serious business of talking.
It’s been on your to-read list for ever and there has never been a better time to tackle War and Peace than with the guidance of novelist Yiyun Li, who is leading a virtual book club with the hashtag #TolstoyTogether.
Salon London Book Club
The live event company is starting its new book club with Adults, ahead of a live-streamed Q&A with author Emma Jane Unsworth on 19 April.
Reese’s Book Club
Reese Witherspoon’s love of reading shone through in Ann Patchett’s brilliant recent profile of her for Vanity Fair. Her Instagram book club, @reesesbookclub, discusses one book a month “with a woman at the centre of the story” and is followed by 1.5m people.
Our Shared Shelf
Actor Emma Watson founded this book club, which is focused on intersectional feminist literature, in 2016. Though she announced she would be winding back her involvement in the group in January 2020, the community continues to discuss books under the hashtag #oursharedshelf on Twitter, Instagram and Goodreads.
Ladies lit squad
Sheree Milli’s “IRL” all-female book club is based in London, but it has turned into an “isolation book club” on Instagram, where they are due to start The Recovery of Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel on 26 March at 7pm GMT.
Dialogue Virtual Book Lounge
Sharmaine Lovegrove has launched a book club for her publishing imprint, which is focused on books by and about the LGBTQI+, disability, working class and BAME communities. She will be in conversation with a Dialogue author about their book on Instagram Live every Thursday at 8pm GMT for the next 10 weeks.