Book Club Zoom Rooms? Online Launches? Melbourne Reading Communities Adapt to a Post-Covid World

When I checked my phone this morning, I had a text from my sister. It was a video of her daughter – my niece – sounding out the words to her very first picture book: Mix, Mix, Mix, the engrossing tale of Bob the Bug baking a cake.

Ordinarily, this is the kind of thing I’d drive over to see in person. But 2020 isn’t exactly ordinary. And the crazy thing is, this new type of interaction isn’t even an isolated incident anymore, but a shared experience on a global scale.

As Victorians trudge through our second lockdown, with no definitive end in sight, Melbourne readers are being forced to adapt. And with bookshops and public spaces closed, the impulse towards the digital has never been stronger.

This need to problem-solve is playing out across all walks of life – from stand-up comedy to Click-and-Collect groceries. But, it’s the response of the literary community that I find interesting.

In June, Grattan Street Press held their first ever digital book launch, for Joseph Fraser’s Melbourne and Mars: My Mysterious Life on Two Planetsthe story of a ‘colonial merchant who finds himself living a parallel life on Mars’.  

Joseph Carbone, who was GSP’s social media manager at the time of the launch, describes the whole process as ‘a really positive experience’. ‘I remember being happily surprised by the turnout’, he says. And while he concedes it was ‘a long road to get there’, especially given the difficulty of planning an event in lockdown, the Zoom-based launch was certainly a success.

In a similar vein, I spoke to Alison Dennison, a local travel blogger, who has been meeting with her book club over Zoom since March.  

The club, which has been running for 21 years, was initially hesitant. ‘Some people were so reluctant … They just felt, if we couldn’t meet in person they didn’t want to do it.’ The technology was also a concern, of course, but after six months, ‘we’re all old hands’, Alison laughs.

There have been some distinctly positive aspects to going digital for Alison and the book club, including reconnecting with a few ex-members who have moved interstate. But the most surprising has been to do with the literature itself. ‘We’ve actually focused more on the books … because it’s harder to have those side conversations,’ Alison admits.

Then, of course, there’s the question of festivals—where the internet opens up a world of possibilities. ‘We did eight or nine sessions at the Hay Festival. We’ve done the Melbourne Writers Festival. We’ve just been doing the Edinburgh Festival. And we’re looking at the Library of Congress one in Washington.’ The ability to slot in a trip to some of the most prestigious literary festivals in the world before bed is certainly a game changer – even if it’s not quite the same as being there IRL.

But, while some of this may seem a bit Brave New World, how new is this New World Order, really? Truth be told, the literary sphere has been going digital for quite some time.

The rise of BookTube (the side of YouTube dedicated to reader reviews, book recommendation vlogs, and generally bookish content), Bookstagram (Book Instagram), and even BookTok (Book TikTok – the newest of the bunch!) over the last couple of years have firmly demonstrated the twenty-first-century reader’s need for an online network.

And indeed, arguably the most famous book club ever (and, with almost fifty thousand members according to Goodreads, perhaps also the largest) is strictly digital; Oprah’s Book Club has been a mainstay of the lit scene since 1996. The segment has consistently plucked works from relative obscurity and transformed them into bona fide ‘instant bestseller[s]’.  According to Nora Rawlinson, past editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly, every one of Oprah’s digital recommendations ‘guaranteed [the] sale of 600,000 to 800,000 copies on top of what the books already sold’.

Likewise, it isn’t unheard of for literary festivals to make their content available to international audiences: Alison explains that ‘a lot of them have always done the “you can catch up” sessions … [online] sessions that you can listen to afterwards.’

Essentially, it’s clear that, even though lockdown has amped things up, the world was on the digital path already.

So, what does all this mean?

Everything I read seems to position the world’s current reliance on digital communication as a chore: a necessary evil we must grin and bear until everything returns to normal. And while there are certainly elements of that (I must admit, every time I’m on Zoom, I can’t help but wonder if this is the closest society has ever come to a fully functional panopticon), the truth is nuanced.

For me, what stands out about the Covid-induced ‘rise of the screen’ is how it challenges the narrative of the traditional reading community. The international-ness of the internet provides us with new, meaningful contexts in which to engage with texts, far beyond our day-to-day wheelhouse. And, perhaps most significantly, it normalises the idea of making content accessible to a far wider array.

There are certainly some things that you can’t replicate online – the experience of attending a writers’ festival, the feeling of leafing through pages in a bookshop – but what this technological explosion has sparked is not insignificant.

Ultimately, online accessibility and in person experience are both important to a network of readers, and, going forward, neither should be ignored.

Olivia Kate Menzies is a writer and editor based in Melbourne. Winner of the University of Melbourne Arts Student’s Society Writing Competition, and Shortlisted Entrant for the Somerset National Novella Writing Award, Olivia has published pieces in journals and magazines. At the moment, she is studying for a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne.

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