Online Book Club

I have been reading the New Yorker Book Club’s “discussion” of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. More accurately I’ve been trying to read the comments that are posted from time to time on the Club’s website. You don’t “listen” to the discussion at this book group as you would in a face-to-face gathering, nor is it possible to follow-up immediately with comment or question, that is responded to, in turn, by another member. Indeed, the experience of an online book club is quite different than it is in a real-time group.

Here is how it works. First you go to the Book Club’s website to read any one of the several Discussion Topics. You read it as best you can and then, should there be any comments you click on “comment” whereupon to are taken to a new page where you can read them. Most are brief, although some are as lengthy and detailed as the original statement itself.

There are two ways you can contribute, both of which require registration. The Book Club leader (a New Yorker staff writer) must first approve your remarks if you wish it to be listed as a Discussion Topic. Otherwise, to respond to any of the general Topic statements, you need only fill in the box on the comment page for that Topic.

The Club began meeting on February 19th and to date to date there have been 12 Discussion Topics and a variable number of comments to each one ranging from 0 to 11. I think the discussion of each book will last about a month plus or minus a few days. The next reading will be George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

I began reading the Club’s discussions to find out what it is like. And what I am finding is that it is not all that likeable. Rather, it is a somewhat cumbersome and awkward routine. The task of reading the list of Discussion Topics, then switching to the comment page of each one, and then back again to the next Discussion Topic is a slow and awkward process. So is the routine for making a comment.

What this sort of online book club (perhaps any online book club) lacks is the lively to and fro of an active conversation, the development of ideas and the clarification of meaning, all of which are present in a face-to-face meeting. And as I read the remarks I don’t see much in the way of dialogue either. Each person makes a statement, followed in turn by another that rarely, if ever, acknowledges a point made by anyone else. (Full Disclosure—yesterday a person did, in fact, respond to a comment I had made. Although my comment was posted over a week ago, at least it was made note of and I was relieved that the responder happened to agree with my view of the novel.)

I began reading the Book Club as an experiment. I haven’t found it a very congenial experience. More to my liking is a conventional book club, especially one composed of serious readers who actually read the book and are more interested in its ideas, rather than the tasty morsels and general socializing that are often found at these gatherings.

In fact, my Ideal Book Club would follow the model established in some academic seminars. It would begin with a brief paper, circulated in advance if possible, and followed by an open discussion of the paper and the book upon which it is based. In a sense, each book read would have a “leader” who would be responsible for the brief paper and guiding the discussion.

The Reading Groups at the Mercantile Library for Fiction in New York are something like I have in mind. Take a glance at the groups--one reading the Great Books, another Virginia Woolf, one reading a novel by Rainier Maria Rilke, another detective stories and yet one more considering Latin American novels. And if this wasn’t enough, there is also a Proust Society at the Mercantile Library with several groups discussing the works of Marcel Proust. Can you believe such a place like this exists? It puts one in a mood to flee this island paradise and fly away to New York on the next plane.