"Reading as a Contact Sport": Online Book Groups and the Social Dimensions of Reading

Article excerpt

Book groups have always been a popular way for readers to come together to share thoughts and ideas. As the online world has continued to expand, book discussions have made their way into this new medium. Now rather then being limited to members who can come together face-to-face, book groups can involve members from across the country or the world. Online book groups bring readers together in new ways, and offer new opportunities for librarians to explore how readers and books intersect. In this article, Barbara Fister examines the social dimensions of an online reading community, the For Mystery Addicts group.

Though reading is often perceived as a sedate and solitary activity, the popularity of reading groups suggests that reading is very much a social experience. Readers--women, in particular--have been coming together for generations to share their responses to books as an occasion for social engagement. That engagement can have a profound, if sometimes unappreciated, effect on our culture. For example, the majority of public libraries in the United States were founded by women who found an opportunity to create positive social change through their cultural associations.

More recently, reading groups gained a high profile during the heady days of Oprah's Book Club, when for a few years, a relatively obscure novel anointed by the popular talk show host would become an instant bestseller. Some members of the literary establishment took exception to a television celebrity being so strongly identified with book culture. When Jonathan Franzen expressed reservations that his novel The Corrections would be labeled with the Oprah logo--and therefore risked being shunned by highbrow and male readers, if embraced by middle-class women--the high-stakes juggernaut came to a sudden halt. But Sedo has pointed out that there is "life after Oprah," that the success of the talk show book club was merely a well-publicized version of an unquenchable thirst for talking about books. (1)

The power of a television celebrity to influence reading practices has made some critics worry that book groups, often supported by chain bookstores and big publishers, are commodifying reading--that we are witnessing a corporate takeover of literary practices that engages readers in formulaic, shallow analysis of texts. (2) Others see the burgeoning of reading groups as a grassroots appreciation of books that can teach us much about the relationship of readers and texts. Hall has noted that "the classroom study of literature sometimes dims the joy of reading," and popular literacy practices encouraged by Oprah offered attractions that academics should take seriously. (3) Strip has found in Oprah's invitation to relate books to everyday lives a feminist reclamation of reading as an act of transformation. (4)

Radway and Long have both explored the ways reading and talking about books enriches women's lives in a manner that academic approaches to literary analysis often disparage. (5) According to Long, a sociologist whose curiosity about women's reading groups was considered a peculiarly trivial research subject by many of her colleagues, "literature requires a broad base of readers to flourish" and, thanks to new channels available for forming book groups, "books are still closely tied to moments of experiential insight and still show a stunning ability to make people, in discussion, feel part of a significant book-related community." (6)

Paralleling the rapidly increasing numbers of face-to-face book clubs, the Internet has become home to thousands of book discussion groups. Critics of online communication, including Robert Putnam and Clifford Stoll, suggest time spent in online communities leads to isolation and social disengagement. (7) An examination of one online book discussion group contests that claim. This analysis draws on the discussion practices of one online group and off-list interviews with members to explore the experience of reading together in a virtual community. …