Online Book Clubs to Love
By Elizabeth Wasserman
A good librarian wants to encourage you to read more. But not all have the time or wherewithal to join a book club, attend monthly meetings and navigate the often challenging book club personalities and politics. So the Robert L. F. Sikes Public Library in Crestview, Fla., like other public libraries from coast to coast, has figured out how to use the web to provide library patrons access to the benefits of a book club without all the hassles.
The library now offers registration for 11 different online book clubs via its web site. Each week, you can receive daily emails from an online service called Dear Reader, containing the opening pages of a new book in whatever genre you prefer -- fiction, nonfiction, mystery, etc. "It's a teaser," says Sandra Dreaden, the library's reference librarian. "It's something to help you branch out and show you a book that you haven't thought to pick up before."
Online book clubs are a new twist on the face-to-face groups of old. They’ve evolved from book clubs by the likes of talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who first formed a club for her viewers in the 1990s to encourage them to read along no matter where they reside. A whole host of new online tools -- from email to wikis to Internet phone services -- now helps you find book clubs and connect with other avid readers to discuss the latest works by everyone from Isabel Allende to Ian McEwan to the classics like Lord of the Flies by William Golding.
Here’s how online book clubs work, where to find them and the web-based tools that you need to get engaged:
How online book clubs work
Just as there is a variety of book types, the same is true when it comes to online book clubs. They range from clubs based on email correspondence, to more participatory online gatherings where you use Internet phone services or web conferencing tools to have discussions with other readers in real time. "Our book club is for you if you don't have time to go meet with other people in person, yet you still want to develop a sense of community," says Suzanne Beecher, a Sarasota, Fla., grandmother who founded Dear Reader in 1999.
If you enjoy discussing what you read, some online book clubs have message boards where you can type out a question or respond to points other club members have made about the book you all just read. You can do this at any time of day. Other clubs -- some by invitation only -- use more advanced technologies to conduct live discussions over the Internet among members.
Where to join book clubs
If your neighborhood doesn't already have a book club, you can venture online to discover clubs in all sorts of genres. Book-Clubs-Resource is a web site that provides links to a variety of general and special interest clubs, such as SeniorNet, a nonprofit organization based in California that operates book clubs for the crowd over 50 years old. Many print and online magazines feature book discussion forums, from the Utne Reader to Salon. Yahoo also has book discussion groups, including Bookworms and Book a Month. Oprah has also moved her book club resources on to the web, where she maintains a history of books the club has read, web-video discussions with authors and message boards.
All book clubs have rules. It's best to know and understand these before you join so that you avoid the messy and personal politics that can engulf opinionated groups of people discussing sometimes controversial books. In general, most online book clubs discourage turning heated discussions into personal attacks -- they may even result in you being asked to leave or your written postings being edited by the book club moderator.
What technology do I need to participate
To join many online book clubs, you need a computer, Internet access and an email account. Some clubs use more advanced technologies, such as wikis -- online sites that members can contribute to and edit -- to keep members posted about upcoming meetings, distribute video clips of an author speaking or engage in collaborative projects, such as annotating Umberto Eco's latest, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.
"We've had people fully annotating novels using a wiki and we've also had people working or writing critiques or reviews of books," says Adam Frey, co-founder of Wikispaces, where users create their own wikis for free.
Other clubs meet in cyberspace using web conferencing software or low-cost Internet voice calling, through such free services as Skype (as Oprah did with her latest book club focused on Eckhart Tolle’s The New Earth). Web conferencing usually involves signing up for an online service and inviting club members to participate via email. The email will include a link that will download all the software a user needs to participate, although sometimes you may have to dial in separately for voice connectivity. Other groups arrange their meeting times over a wiki and install a widget -- a portable piece of code that can be installed and executed within a web page -- to help you dial in to a meeting using Skype.
If mastering new technology is too much work, email book clubs may be the answer. "If you don't like it," says Beecher, the Dear Reader founder, "you hit the delete key and start over again the next Monday morning with a new book."
Elizabeth Wasserman is a freelance writer and editor based in Fairfax, Va. She writes for a variety of publications including Congressional Quarterly and Inc. magazine, and she edits the online publication CIO Strategy Center.