Online book clubs are nothing new. CBC has one. NPR has one. The Guardian has one. Until recently, Oprah Winfrey had one. And long before the web, the rec.arts.books usenet groups were home to literary discussion of all kinds. But a new initiative from The Atlantic takes the online book club and adds a twist.
1book140 is a monthly "read-along" that launches June 1, and its defining characteristic is that it takes place almost exclusively on Twitter, organized around the #1book140 hashtag.
"Twitter is the thumping heart of 1book140. It's where most of the conversation will take place," says author and journalism professor Jeff Howe.
1book140 is the follow-up to Howe's 2010 project One Book, One Twitter. Howe told me that with One Book, One Twitter, "12,000 people from all around the world read Neil Gaiman's American Gods."
Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin has been chosen as the first title to be discussed in 1book140, and structure of the online conversation will benefit from lessons learned during Howe's previous effort. For instance, avoiding spoilers: This time, Howe says, "[we'll] divide discussion up by chapters so that people aren't giving away plot points." This is accomplished by using hashtags for each chapter of The Blind Assassin: #1b140_1, #1b140_2, #1b140_3, etc.
When I first heard about this project, I had to wonder: isn't Twitter simply too short? Is it possible to have a meaningful, nuanced discussion about a piece of literature through a medium that puts so much value on brevity and pith?
According to Howe, that's not really the goal. "What you don't get is long, meditative, reflective discussion. You have to think of Twitter as an episodic medium. If you have a complex argument to make, it's something that you break down into bursts of 140 characters."
For Howe, discussing a novel on Twitter mirrors the conversational back-and-forth nature of a meatspace book club. "If you think about it, when you're sitting at a book party, you may not say a whole lot more than could be expressed in 140 characters before someone else jumps in and gives their 140-character response. Then you start again."
The episodic nature of Twitter offers two things, says Howe: scalability and spontaneity.
Scalability means that you can have many people from many places all engaging with a book at the same time.
When it comes to spontaneity, "there's an ability for people to log on, day or night, and there's always people discussing."
The spontaneity of Twitter is something I can completely relate to. There's something very compelling about the "now-ness" of Twitter. For me, the now-ness is most apparent during large-scale events that unfold in real time: protests in Egypt, election results, and sports. If you've never watched Saturday Night Live with Twitter open, it's worth a try. As videoblogger Steve Garfield says, "Watching TV with Twitter open is like having all my friends on the couch with me."
Turning books into events
Though I'm not completely sold on the value of Twitter as a medium for literary discussion, I completely understand the impulse to use it to turn books — static, fixed works — into events, complete with real-time analysis, commentary and arguments.
In an increasingly on-demand, random-access world — when I can watch, read, or listen to whatever I want, whenever I want — there's still value in a shared collective experience.
Now, I would be remiss if I failed to confess that aside from a youthful stint in a summer reading program at the Sackville Public Library (for which I was awarded stickers), I have never been a member of a real, face-to-face, sit-down book club. But the desire to join a topic-specific club isn't lost on me. And I recognize that the now-ness of social media, coupled with a feeling of mass participation, can prompt people to reconsider older works that they mightn't otherwise.
For instance, when the hosts of one of my favourite podcasts decided to watch all the James Bond films in order, one per week, I started watching along with them. Am I a die-hard Bond fan? No. Was I terribly interested in re-watching Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger? No. But the feeling of "playing along at home" was enough to entice me. As I watched, I felt like I'd joined a sort of club.
For me, that's part of what's so appealing about keeping one eye on Twitter and the other on a TV set. Or why joining a global, real-time book club sounds fun. Or why I'd fathom re-watching cheesy James Bond films from the 1960s.
In an increasingly on-demand, random-access world — when I can watch, read, or listen to whatever I want, whenever I want —there's still value in a shared collective experience. I think the success of 1book140, and projects like it, will depend on their ability to tap into that.