Grace L. Chao and Amanda Ambinder Shapiro, Bookclub social: A reader’s guide to online book clubs (#BookReview)

BookcoverBack in 2016, I completed a survey about online bookclubs, and answered some supplementary questions about “my” sort of club. I also took part in a follow-up telephone interview with the two American researchers involved, Grace Chao and Amanda Shapiro. Now, three years later, they have completed their research and self-published it in their book, Bookclub social: A reader’s guide to online book clubs. Of course I bought it, because although it’s some time since I’ve been active in online book clubs (or, OBCs), I am interested in reading communities of all sorts.

Chao and Shapiro explain their research process in the opening chapter. They describe their work as an ethnography, and so used “anthropological methodology”. This involved the survey (for which they received 840 responses, a 22% response rate), followed-up by in-depth interviews with around 100 participants, and participant observation of a number of clubs in operation. They divide the clubs into seven genres:

  • Classics (which includes Literary)
  • Erotica
  • General Reader
  • Horror
  • Mystery/Thriller
  • Romance
  • Sci-fi

You won’t be surprised to hear that I slotted into the Classics group.

Anyhow, in this chapter they explain their aim as being to look at “how the nature of community is being redefined and shaped in the digital age”. I wouldn’t say, necessarily, that what they found was surprising – at least not in terms of my own experience of such clubs – but the book makes some cogent points about how international online communities can work, what they can offer, and some of the challenges they face too.

Of course, Chao and Shapiro found that, overall, female readers dominate most of the clubs, which is similar to face-to-face clubs, although in certain genres, like sci-fi, men are involved in greater numbers than in others. They found that people join these clubs to converse about books, “to deepen and enhance their reading experience”, and often, to seek both intellectual and social outlets. Face-to-face clubs can do these too, but OBCs can offer more.

For example, and this is something that I particularly liked, in a traditional face-to-face book club, there is limited time for discussion, usually just an hour or so. As Chao and Shapiro put it, these groups require “a faster thought process where there is less time to analyze or to react”. In an OBC, you can read a comment by another reader, mull it over, and write a response in an hour, a day, or whenever (within the rules or practices of the club.) I learnt so much during my 10 years or so of active involvement in these clubs.

However, it’s not only the extended time-frame which enables deeper or more expansive discussion. The global nature of these clubs allows for a more “diverse cultural exchange of perspectives and opinions”. This diversity can be generational, gender, racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, political and/or religious based.

For some readers, Chao and Shapiro found, OBCs represented the only outlet available to them for book discussion. These are readers who live in countries/places/situations where “a shared reading culture is not prioritized” (or, even, approved of), or who read genres (like Erotica) for which it is not always easy to find local reading communities, or who, for some reason (such as being housebound), are unable to access activities like face-to-face reading groups.

A propos the first group, Chao and Shapiro write that “for members from more restrictive cultures and communities, a virtual shared reading community could be their first foray into a community which allows personal expression and choice”. They include some moving stories about such readers, mostly women, who are desperate to be part of a reading community. A member of a Romance bookclub told Chao and Shapiro about a member from Pakistan, who was being pressured to marry “an elderly gentleman”:

Shortly thereafter, she told us that her family was not allowing her to post in the group anymore and even restricting her access to the internet. In her last post, she wrote: ‘Think of me.’ I didn’t know what to do. We never realized the risk she was taking by being a member of our book club. Through our book discussions, she was exposed to different cultures, religions, politics, morals, and values; she was able to speak her mind freely, things we take for granted in Western society. It’s like the club was deemed a bad influence…

Stories like this are saddening, but not surprising.

They note, in fact, that the social aspects of these clubs disprove the popular misconception that OBC members are “anti-social because they prefer online to face-to-face interactions”. Socialisation does take place, they say, with “intricate networks of friendships” being created across “national borders, time zones, and cultural barriers”. Here I’ll share a quote from the book that I’m sure another survey participant wrote about me:

I met another gal from Australia when she and her hubby were visiting here. We went to a great museum in Los Angeles.

Mr Gums and I did indeed meet two OBC friends of mine, and we had a lovely day at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. My OBC experience has had a significant and ongoing influence on my life, even though I am no longer active.

The book is logically structured, with the main body comprising chapters focusing on specific questions, such as Who’s in charge? (on the role of moderators) and Who’s anchoring the club? (on the role of core members). Other chapters explore social connection in OBCs, how they create virtual safe havens, their role in exposing members to new ideas, and the way they are able to create a sense of belonging among members. Chao and Shapiro support these discussions with evidence from their field research and from relevant academic writings by anthropologists, sociologists, information scientists, and others. The chapters are carefully footnoted and there is an extensive list of references at the end.

I’m not sure whether what they found can be extrapolated to other online communities and the book ends with advice about OBCs rather than making such extrapolations, but they do make some cogent points about the way OBC’s support and promote diversity and inclusivity, and they identify the main factors that make these sorts of communities work (or not). For these reasons, Bookclub social is a worthwhile read, as well as, for me at least, an enjoyable one.

Grace L. Chao and Amanda Ambinder Shapiro
Bookclub social: A reader’s guide to online book clubs
BookBaby, 2019
ISBN (ebook): 9781543947526