A decade ago, talking about books took place mostly in the classroom, in living rooms, in coffee shops – any public place where people of similar interests could physically get together to talk. Other kinds of book discussion that did not involve face-to-face human interaction took place between the pages of books, magazines and newspapers, predominantly in the form of essays and reviews, interviews with authors and letters to the editor. These continue to flourish, but there is now an additional forum of communication – the Internet. Of course, the Net is by no means a new phenomenon, but now, with online connection fees competitively lower than ever before and access to computers more easily available to a greater variety of people, usage is most certainly more widespread than it was ten years ago.
The Internet holds great potential for those who want to talk about books and reading; it’s the perfect medium for it in fact, filling some kind of middle ground between the spark and immediacy of a public dialogue, and the privacy and impartiality of a printed discourse. Whether it be through message boards, book clubs, weblogs, chat rooms or forums, online book discussion manages to retain that sense of privacy and contemplation that is so much a part of the experience and act of reading, while at the same time containing a sense of dynamism and participation that might perhaps be lost in the printed forms of media. Online, web-users can type in their thoughts or idea, see it ‘published’ instantly, and potentially get an immediate response.
The implications of this are surely nothing but positive. Online book discussion is yet another way of celebrating the pleasure of reading and bringing books to life for a wider audience. Not everyone necessarily knows people they can talk about books in person with, nor has access to (or knowledge of) the printed materials that might be available to them – so the internet opens up a dialogue that simply might not have existed for many. And it’s not just these social factors but also the very nature of reading itself, the fact that it is such a solitary activity, that poses barriers for communication. Even for the people most connected with other people and materials associated with books, it can be hard to initiate discussion, often because people’s interests are so wide-ranging. Book-lovers may be members of a silent community, but similar way to a weblog, in terms of the extent of the discussion amongst users (see also www.inwriting.org/weblog, a personal weblog full of thoughtful discussion).
Other sites that are also portals for debate can be found at www.online-literature.com and www.bookspot.com, which contain a lot of information and discussion, but somehow lack the sense of community and permanency that the more personal weblogs and author websites have. Nevertheless, they remain valid as places where people can go to express their enthusiasm and criticism of certain books and ideas.
Book clubs and forums seem to exist somewhere in the middle, between the specialisation of weblogs and author websites and the general sites dedicated broadly to ‘books’ and ‘literature’. Here readers can gather to discuss any variety of books, but can participate in a prolonged exchange of ideas, rather than just a one-off posting. One problem with the many online book clubs and forums is that they require a fee to join, which seems to defeat the whole purpose of Internet communication in the first place. The crucial benefit of the Internet, and the quality that gives it its edge over other forms of communication, surely, is its inclusive nature; without that, it ceases to have the same impact. Newspaper sites such as the Guardian and The Times, both wealthy organisations, have, by contrast, developed online book clubs that are free and accessible to many more people (www.talk.guardian.co.uk and www.timesbooks.typepad.com).
It seems then, that different kinds of discussion are out there, albeit in a fragmentary way. Most of the good sites I’ve chanced upon haven’t been through search engines or sites like www.readinggroups.co.uk which act as sources of information on where else to look on the web. There is definitely a market for more (free) book discussion sites to be developed, and for more effective ways of sifting through the resources that are already available. Doing a basic Google search, for example, does not always lead to some of the most interesting, thriving sites. Perhaps over the next decade, web-users themselves might develop an online network for book-readers, helping to fulfil the potential for electronic book discussion that is currently demonstrated in little pockets across the web.