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Start an online book club: How to pick the right read and host a virtual discussion on Zoom

Carly Mallenbaum, Mary Cadden and Barbara VanDenburgh, USA TODAY

Here’s something you can still do very well while staying at home to avoid coronavirus exposure: Read a book.

Another thing you can do effectively while quarantined? Participate in a book club.

Sure, it will be different without everyone piling onto the same couch or convening at a favorite coffee shop. But take it from three book clubbers (longtime host Barbara VanDenburgh, regular reader Mary Cadden and newbie Carly Mallenbaum all collaborated on this story), virtual book club has the potential to be a rewarding and intimate meet-up that serves a calendar commitment you’re actually psyched for.

Plus, you can invite people who don’t live in your city, or even your time zone!

So how do you put together a successful book club while in lockdown? We have some tips: 

Staying Apart, Together: A newsletter about how to cope with the coronavirus pandemic

Start with a small guest list

If you're a book club newbie, 10 invitees is a great place to start. Chances are, only half of those people will show up, and then only half of those people will have read the book in time (more on that later); two or three actively engaged discussion participants is plenty! When deciding on book discussion times, be cognizant of time zones to make for a gathering time that works well for everyone, and it’s not a bad idea to make calendar invites for that time. (Carly’s bicoastal book club meets around 5 p.m. PDT/8 p.m. EDT.) 

Get set up for a video chat on Zoom

At this point, there’s a good chance you’ve employed the video conference app Zoom for either work meetings, happy hours, or even Passover seders. We recommend Zoom for book clubs, too!

If you’re new to Zoom: You need a computer, smartphone, or tablet with a camera. Begin by going to the Zoom website or downloading the app and registering your account. From there, once registered, click "Host a Meeting" and send out the invite URL to others to join. (Read more about privacy measures to take while using Zoom here.)

Consider employing virtual meeting features

You can't meet in person, so why not work a little whimsy into the meeting and ask members to put up a virtual background based on the book? Upload an image of where the book is set geographically or historically, or find a virtual background that represents how you felt about the book. That is sure to get a discussion going. 

If you are worried everyone will talk over each other, choose a moderator and have people give their input using the raising hand feature, with the moderator calling on each individual. However, Barbara has hosted virtual book clubs with over 40 attendees without employing this feature and instead let the conversation flow organically. So winging it, even with a bigger group, is perfectly fine. 

Anticipate awkward pauses

We’re not saying you and your friends are awkward. You are not awkward! OK, we all are a little awkward on video chats, but don’t fret! If connections are spotty and not everyone knows each other, you run the risk of a lull in the conversation. Prepare for that with these two words: Discussion. Prompts.

Some books have reading group guides, which are helpful. But sometimes suggested questions can be dense, with questions about theme and structure that can make book club feel more like English class than a fun time with friends. Here are a few backup prompts you can defer to if you need to shift gears in the conversation over any book:

  1. How would you cast the film version of the book?
  2. What character did you hate/love the most in the book and why?
  3. What emotion were you feeling the moment you finished the book? Sad? Satisfied? Searching? 
  4. Was there a part of the book you wish you had written? Do you have any favorite lines?
  5. What outcome did you anticipate that didn’t come to light?
  6. Did this book remind you of any others that you’ve read? 
  7. If you could talk to the author, what question would you most like to ask him or her?
  8. Did you learn anything?
  9. Have you read similar books and how does this one compare? 
  10. Would you recommend this book to others?

What to eat? It’s BYOB, of course

Some books naturally lend themselves to specific menus – scones and tea for anything Agatha Christie, homemade butterbeer (it’s a thing) for "Harry Potter" – but even if the pairing isn't obvious, it's nice to get creative with cultural drinks and dishes to go with a transporting read. Mary's favorite pairing was when her club enjoyed a Cuban meal and drank mojitos while discussing "The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love" by Oscar Hijuelos. But not being able to meet up in person is somewhat good news right now: You don’t have to serve everyone else, so there’s less pressure on the meal.

And, really, cooking in quarantine is getting tiresome, so water instead of a mojito is totally sufficient. But coffee and wine are natural discussion lubricants. 

Limit background noise

Book club is a time to talk about the book, not to overhear a friend’s spouse’s work call. Be mindful of the noise in your home when you join a book club and try to call from a private room and wear headphones so fellow readers feel they can openly discuss the book, or even their personal life, without worrying about the judgment of people who aren’t in the club (and keep your microphone muted when you're not talking). Carly does make one exception for her partner, though: He can come into the office during book club to silently pour her more wine.

Don’t stress over the 'book' in book club 

The main goal of a book group is to have a meaningful discussion. Oftentimes, conversation veers away from the actual book read (or not read) before the meeting. That is more than OK. Really, a book club is a ruse for getting people to connect and for you to have a deadline for finishing a book you otherwise might never have gotten around to reading. But if you don't meet that deadline, it's perfectly OK.

Pick a book that is accessible, literally and figuratively

With many retail stores still closed and people choosing to stay at home, it’s a good idea to pick a title that club members can download on e-readers, in case the book isn’t available for curbside pickup nearby. But the inability to obtain and finish a book shouldn't prohibit people from joining your club! A rule for Mary’s group: You don’t need to read the book; you just need to be eager to talk.

Consider how discussable the book is when selecting

Some books naturally lend themselves to more meaningful discussions. Barbara has found that books that deal with social issues (racism, inequality, class, etc.) make for more impassioned conversations, and juicy stories with plot-based twists and turns that have some of that aforementioned depth ("Little Fires Everywhere," for example) practically discuss themselves. Don't shy away from unconventional or challenging selections, either. Disagreement is a key ingredient to interesting book club conversations, so don't be afraid to pick something that isn't a guaranteed crowd favorite. 

Not sure how to start? Try one of these books

  1. “Fleishman is in Trouble,” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. It was the catalyst for discussion in Carly's club to everything from unspoken challenges of marriage to how much being a woman has to do with one's identity to memories of summer camp.
  2. "The Nickel Boys," by Colson Whitehead. This book just won Whitehead his second Pulitzer Prize, and for good reason. His fictional account of the horrific abuse back boys suffered at a juvenile reform school in the Jim Crow-era South was inspired by the real-life and equally horrific Dozier School for Boys. Essential, powerful reading.
  3. "Red at the Bone," by Jacqueline Woodson. This book resulted in Barbara's best book club conversation of 2019. Woodson explores the ramifications of unplanned pregnancies on two families and the lifelong consequences of decisions made in youth. Topics as weighty as race, class, religion and sexuality are addressed in a compassionate, lyrical voice. 
  4. "Nothing to See Here," by Kevin Wilson. Lillian is aimless and adrift when she gets a call from her old best friend Madison, now the wife of an important senator, asking for help taking care of her new stepchildren. The catch? They catch on fire. Literally. Talk about a discussable book. 
  5. “The Wives,” by Tarryn Fisher. Thursday tries hard to be the perfect wife for Seth – even though he has two other wives who live elsewhere. In addition to a few plot twists that will keep everyone on their toes, the subjects of gender roles, marriage and polygamy are plenty to keep the discussion going. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Book club in quarantine: How to host a virtual, engaging chat on Zoom