Screens Were Breaking My Brain. A Book Club Helped Me Fix It.

Many women are finding that online book clubs can be a way to connect to new people in communities they want to be part of in real life.
Many women are finding that online book clubs can be a way to connect to new people in communities they want to be part of in real life.

Summary

Book lovers are turning their online acquaintances into in-person communities.

Women are finding a way to get social media to do what it’s supposed to do. Or at least what I’ve always hoped it would do: help us make new friends.

Like so many of us, my brain has felt increasingly taken over by screens. I’m constantly online for work, covering social-media companies for a living. The time I used to spend reading or meeting new people was too often spent scrolling feeds and streaming TV shows.

I was finally able to break the cycle by joining a book club online. Instead of shopping ads and fake news, many women are finding that online book clubs can be a way to connect to new people in communities they want to be part of in real life.

“We don’t go out as much anymore, I think, just in general as a society. Everything can be dropped off at our door," says Katie Barney, a 38-year-old nurse practitioner who joined a Chicago-area offshoot for fans of the Instagram account Beach Reads & Bubbly. “This is so much different. We make an effort to meet up."

While book communities have long been on the internet, they experienced a new surge in recent years, particularly around 2020 when many people were staying at home during pandemic lockdowns. #Bookstagram and its TikTok equivalent #BookTok have spread across the websites, with users posting over 29 million times mentioning #BookTok. Publishers say #BookTok can help launch bestsellers and give bloggers copies of books in exchange for reviews.

It isn’t just TikTok. Romance novelist Abby Jimenez created a Facebook group in 2019 that now has over 24,000 fans. “That has been instrumental in the success of my books," she says. “These are the people that are the ride-or-dies."

From online to IRL friends

Many people, especially women, who joined online book clubs are looking to turn those connections into real-life friendships.

Katie Shober, who runs Beach Reads & Bubbly, has over 160,000 followers. As an adult, “it’s difficult to make new friends," Shober says. “This has been a great vehicle for connecting women, even if they never read the book."

Shober started the book-and-cocktail-themed account in 2020 as a solely online exercise. Last year, she launched a system where fans of her account could start in-person book clubs in their cities. Groups have popped up for about 250 cities and locations.

Women who have joined those book clubs sometimes end up with a dozen new friends.

Barney, the nurse practitioner in the Chicago area, started going to one of those groups last year. They started by meeting at local restaurants, and now meet at each other’s homes. They made a list of each other’s birthdays to celebrate. They went to see the rom-com movie “Anyone But You" together. They have supported each other through grief and fertility challenges.

Julie Colwell, 34, joined the same group last year. She’s been attending the monthly meetings ever since.

“I was a new mom and I wasn’t getting out as much," she says. “I just really wanted to meet new people, try something new."

The women I spoke to for this column echoed versions of this feeling. Social media has made it easier than ever for us to stay in touch with old friends who often live many miles away, which is often fabulous. But combine all those digital conversations with all the other demands on our time—work and children—and it often feels hard to make new friends in real life.

Craving connection

User numbers of an app called “Bookclubs," designed to help organize clubs, grew 240% from 2020 to 2021. Since then, its user base has been roughly doubling annually, the company says. The app currently has just under one million users with accounts.

That’s still a relatively small audience, compared with other social apps, and I wouldn’t expect book clubs to be for everyone. Still, Bookclubs Chief Executive Anna Ford says that many users are turning to the app to build connections.

More than 90% of the app’s users are female, and roughly 20% of users are younger, between the ages of 18 and 34, according to estimates from the company.

Young people are showing interest in book clubs, Ford says, “despite that perception of book club being like, you know, older women meeting in the living room over wine."

Like anything on the internet, aspects of #Bookstagram and #BookTok can be attention-chasing or otherwise imperfect. Bookstagrammers half-joke about spending more time scrolling and posting than reading. A lot of the chatter is about romance novels and beach reads, not all literary masterpieces. Online drama erupts over strong opinions.

I joined a book club

I was born to be a bookworm. Growing up, I devoured series like “Magic Tree House" and imagined myself solving mysteries alongside Nancy Drew. At school, I remember winning an award for how many books I read. (I never said I was cool.)

I joined an online book club two years ago at the invitation of my boyfriend’s sister-in-law, Mariah Cooke. She had started the book club with a friend, after moving from California to North Carolina and wanting to build new friendships. Book club gave us something in common to talk about as we swapped thoughts about what we were reading. It also helped me rediscover the joy of getting lost in a book.

The group has now read scores of books together and often meets twice a month. Women spanning the country and decades in age log on to chat. Around two dozen members attended a recent meeting. Some have even flown and driven hours for annual weekend trips.

“I definitely didn’t see it turning into the friendships that it has," says Cooke, 29.

Last May, Cooke flew to Nashville, Tenn., to stay with fellow book clubber Madison Drake and go to a Taylor Swift Eras concert together.

“I have friends that would say, ‘Oh my gosh, That’s so weird. You don’t know this person,’ " says Drake, 25, about spending time with people she first met online. “I talk to some of these people more than I talk to friends in real life."

Cooke looks forward to those Zoom calls so much that she logged on a week after giving birth last year. “I was not going to miss book club," she says.

Write to Alexa Corse at alexa.corse@wsj.com

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