Faced with more time to read but fewer people to share her thoughts with, due to the pandemic, Tina Reich logged on to Twitter in April 2020. She was thrilled to find that other readers were flocking to the site. “Finding a community of people who love literature and enlighten me has been the greatest gift that the pandemic gave me. I feel I have finally found my people!” says Reich.
When COVID-19 shut down much of the world, the way many of us filled our time changed. Many Americans picked up or returned to an old hobby: reading. As coronavirus cases went up, so did the number of book sales. In the U.S., print book sales increased by 67.8 million in 2021, a 9% increase over 2020.
“I [used to] read on average two books per month since 2013 because of a 60-hour work week,” said Sarah Diligenti, the executive director of the French Language and Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. “The pandemic has allowed me to recover a four to five books per month average.”
The spaces where readers like Diligenti used to meet up with fellow readers, though, shut down. “Meeting new people who share my interest in literature is difficult when cafes and book festivals and bookstores are closed, or virtual, or limited to four persons per shop and six feet apart,” said Christina Kim, a Los Angeles art director and production designer. To stay afloat, libraries, bookstores and book clubs offered Zoom events, a poor substitute for in-person events.
With a new passion for reading, but nowhere to go to find community, readers turned to an unlikely resource: Twitter. The social media website, often denigrated for its dumbed-down language and hostile environment, became an unexpected haven for a new community of readers. Affectionately known as “BookTwitter,” accounts dedicated to writing, reading, and discussing books sprung up across the website.
“BookTwitter is the friendliest, most supportive environment – the exact opposite of what one finds elsewhere on social media,” said Steve Middendorf, a participant in BookTwitter’s reading book clubs. Some of these Twitter spaces existed before the pandemic and were bolstered, others were brand new.
One new phenomenon is “#LiteratureTogether” book clubs. First popularized when A Public Space, a New York based journal, started a “#TolstoyTogether” reading of War and Peace. Many groups have subsequently sprung up, encompassing diverse participants and literary genres.
I participated in the #IClaudiusTogether group, which read the historical fiction novel by Robert Graves from January to March of 2021. Each week, a host tweeted the page assignments for the coming days.
Every day, I read the 10-15 pages assigned before searching the #IClaudiusTogether hashtag and seeing what my peers had to say about that day’s reading. Sometimes the tweets were relevant quotes from the novel, others were more in-depth analyses. Sometimes they were just unguarded opinions or witty jokes. Regardless, the group made what otherwise could have been a dry read into one I thought was full of interest and energy.
The group is small, consisting of about 10 members, but there are other groups with memberships well into the thousands.
“You want to be heard, you want someone else to talk back,” said Mike Kim, a middle-aged New York lawyer who hosted #IClaudiusTogether and whose most popular group, #ProustTogether, read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (AKA Remembrance of Things Past) for almost a year. “On BookTwitter I’ve found such a warm, living writer community. I have writers all the time commenting on tweets I’ve made which I find so warm and generous.”
A long-time lover of literature, Kim wanted to provide a space where readers could support one another in tackling the books they’d always wanted to get to but had never had the chance. “[The groups] pick books of substance that have discussion potential. Especially with COVID, I think people were thinking, ‘Hey, now’s the time, it’s now or never, I’m going to read War and Peace or Proust or Infinite Jest,’” said Kim.
Participants have been vocal about these Twitter group’s roles in their lives. “As this is a daily event, I feel I gain far more from this format than from a pre-pandemic, conventional book club. I hope we continue once the world opens up again. I would miss BookTwitter hugely,” said Mairead Murphy, a retired speech and language pathologist in Ireland and a member of multiple hashtag groups.
Tracy Johnson, another participant, said, “It’s a no pressure, inclusive group of fairly like-minded people who can still disagree about the value of classic literature … but still agree on the value of literature to inform us about the past, present and future.”
Kim credits the accessibility of the Twitter format for the success of his groups: “It’s important to balance the high-brow with kind of a welcoming tone. I think that’s a very important part of online discussion, rather than just saying like, my word is gospel.”
Long-time lovers of reading, and those with a newfound love for it have found a unique community in BookTwitter’s #LiteratureTogether reads. Alison Jaye, a marketing professional and active participant in Kim’s groups said, “I now look forward to getting on Twitter to hang out with my new friends. I am getting more out of every book I read, regardless of the group.”
When asked if she would continue participating in the #LiteratureTogether groups as the world returned to pre-COVID normalcy, participant and writer Pia Z. Erhardt said, “I do feel life encroaching more as our freedom to move around returns and we become more available to our friends and family, but I don’t want to relinquish the time slotted every day to reading books with the Twitter community. Through books, I’d follow these people anywhere.”