Here's how to start an online book club that's as fun as meeting in real life

·8 min read

Not all habits picked up over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic were bad ones.

Granted, some of us are still drinking too much and may never again wear pants that don't have stretchy waistbands. (We're working on it.) But the pandemic also created space for many of us to read more and gave us practice using technology that helps facilitate virtual conversations. Put both of those together, and you've got a virtual book club.

Trust us, they're fun.

Sure, it's a bit 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 collaborated on this story), virtual book club has the potential to be a rewarding and intimate meetup that serves as 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 with everyone in a different room? We have some tips:

Reading isn't canceled in quarantine.
Reading isn't canceled in quarantine.

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.

Get set up for a video chat

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 link to others to join. (Read more about privacy measures to take while using Zoom here.)

Let the virtual meeting features work for you

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?

  8. What did you learn reading this book?

  9. How does this one compare to other books you've read?

  10. Would you recommend this book to others? Why or why not?

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. A big plus about virtual book clubs: You don’t have to serve everyone else, so there’s less pressure on the meal.

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

It’s a good idea to pick a title that club members can download on e-readers, in case a physical copy isn’t available. Some readers with vision impairment also prefer e-readers for their ability to increase font size. 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 (Celeste Ng's "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

  • “Don't Know Tough,” by Eli Cranor. Billy Lowe is the star running back for the high school football team in Denton, Arkansas. When his troubled home life causes him to act out on the field, head coach Trent Powers is determined to save him. Think “Friday Night Lights” with a Southern Gothic twist.

  • "Booth," by Karen Joy Fowler. The PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author of “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” makes a breathtaking return with a novel about the family behind one of American history’s most notorious figures: John Wilkes Booth. This snapshot of a troubled family in a country in its own throes of change offers difficult insights into our current moment and like the best literature, seeks to better understand the human heart in all its flawed complexity.

  • “A Ballad of Love and Glory," by Reyna Grande. Amidst the atrocities of the Mexican-American war, Mexican army nurse Ximena Salomé falls in love with Irish soldier John Riley, who has deserted the Yankee army to join the Mexicans in their fight. Part romance, part war story – it's a real page-turner.

  • "Notes on an Execution," by Danya Kukafka. This empathetic and gripping story about a serial killer on death row is primarily told from the perspectives of the women in his life as the clock ticks to his execution. A deconstruction of the serial killer mythos, "Notes on an Execution" is brimming with conversation starters.

  • "Sea of Tranquility," by Emily St. John Mandel. The author of “Station Eleven” and “The Glass Hotel” returns with a fantastical novel that sweeps across time and space, taking readers from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a lunar colony 500 years later.

  • “Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Books in Troubled Times,” by Azar Nafisi. The author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” returns with a book championing the power of literature to guide and galvanize in contentious political times. Isn't that what book clubs are for?

Contributing: Carly Mallenbaum

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Virtual book clubs: Your guide to a nerdy good time