When Carla Saulter pulls out her paperback copy of Jamie Ford’s Songs of Willow Frost on her daily bus commute, she likes to think she’s not alone. Several hundred other Seattle-area transit riders have signed up to read the same book during their bus rides across town as part of a book club that aims to combine the routine of commuting with the joy of reading. Every few weeks, members gather at a library or community center to talk about the book they have been reading.
It’s a way to bring together a diverse and unique community that might otherwise not interact away from the bus stop, notes Saulter, the club's founder and membership manager at Transportation Choices, a Seattle-based nonprofit.
Books on the Bus is just one of many book groups defying the popular living-room-and-wine-sipping setting of the last couple of decades. Twitter-based groups, programs that pair young readers with therapy dogs, and even book clubs for the homeless have all popped up in the last few years with extraordinary results.
Book clubs held in homes or restaurants are still the norm, notes Molly Lundquist, a former college English instructor and the founder of LitLovers, an online community for book clubs. But members are getting more creative with technology and other 21st Century methods to facilitate them, she said. They are using Skype and other video chat methods to include members who move away, posting their favorite tomes on Pinterest, and choosing and commenting on books via Facebook and other social media networks.
Several hundred Seattle-area transit riders sign up to read the same book during their daily commutes.
Major media outlets have also successfully launched digital book clubs in the last few years. Atlantic Monthly's 1Book140 kicked off its Twitter-based club with The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, an avid Twitter user who participated in a live author chat with members. The club has attracted more than 120,000 followers since its 2011 start and is currently reading the 19th-century classic, Middlemarch.
Earlier this year, Tumblr started its first official book club, Reblog, as a way to engage its young and hip online community. In a twist on tradition, it invites its members to express their feelings about the selected book -- this month, it's The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson -- however they choose: “A written review, fan art, GIFs, poems...Maybe you have nail art? Maybe you want to post a video blog talking through your ideas? It’s all up to you!”
Reading groups without a dependence on technology are also thriving. Book clubs for the homeless meet regularly in Boston and Madison, Wisconsin, to discuss works by J.D. Salinger, O.Henry and Rick Riordan, among others. English-speaking readers have formed groups in Kathmandu, Nepal, and the walled city of Lucca, Italy. In the small city of Timmins, Ontario, a group of women have been meeting to discuss books and plays since 1938. Current members, who have the hand-written documentation from the early meetings to prove the group's longevity, believe the book club began as a way of surviving the harsh Canadian winters in an isolated mining village.
In Southern California, Josie Gavieres has added a canine element to the book club concept. As the director of a volunteer-based reading program, she brings trained dogs to elementary schools and libraries across the city, where new readers settle in with books with the dogs by their sides. More than 100 California schools and libraries have signed up for the program.
The cozy environment amid furry non-judgmental listeners often inspires the young learners to read longer, Gavieres says. She points to a 2011 Tufts University study that found second graders who read to dogs over the summer experienced a slight gain in their reading abilities and improved their attitudes toward reading.
Whatever the theme or location a book club chooses to adopt, the core premise that brings everyone together remains largely the same, notes LitLovers founder Lundquist, whose own grandmother was an active participant in two book clubs in the 1930s in the small town of Meadville, Pa.
"It's still about deepening relationships through a love of books," she says.