Book clubs and literary salons have transformed with changing times and technologies. Recently, the Internet has driven a major shift toward online book clubs. In 1998, Arab World Books launched one of the biggest and oldest online Arabic book clubs, creating a literary community across borders. Many others followed, and book discussions have flourished on social-media platforms.
Before the coronavirus lockdowns, most online book clubs focused on asynchronous, bulletin-board style conversations. But the restrictions that came in the wake of Covid-19 created a new desire for social engagement online. This, perhaps, will make a permanent shift in online book groups, particularly those that focus on international readerships.
Several Arab and Arabic book groups that met in person have moved online, mostly to Zoom or Clubhouse. Other new groups, like the popular like Adabiyat, launched in 2020.
Margaret Obank of Banipal magazine, which has run an Arab-literature-focused book club since April 2012, found both advantages and disadvantages to meeting on Zoom. “Going forward, I hope that we can come up with some kind of hybrid solution.”
In 2020, virtual events were an important part of sustaining and creating literary community. There were festivals like Palestine Writes and Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, and many publishers launched talks and readings on Zoom. (See two related articles, “How One Arab Arts Festival Transformed Itself to Save Its Season” and “‘Healing the Distance’: Successful Online Literary Events.”)
Online book clubs are smaller, but more sustained. Some have had speakers and schedules planned out weeks or months in advance, while others have hosted more free-ranging discussions.
A Conversation Revived
For organizers of book clubs we talked to, most participants were women. “Still baffled by this,” Sarah Alaoui, a co-founder of Adabiyat, said over email, “and hope we can change this.”