We all know someone who has been to a feminist book club. You might be a regular attendee or (like me) you may have even run one. Such book clubs are reportedly on the rise, a trend linked to the recent international feminist movements #MeToo and #TimesUp; the increasingly extensive media coverage of the gender pay gap; and so-called Millennials’ vociferous reading habits. Moreover, feminist reading groups are no longer confined to the local pub: people are increasingly taking to cyberspace to discuss the likes of Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The growing politicisation of book clubs and the act of reading itself generates greater awareness of social and economic justice issues. This is especially true of online feminist reading groups, whose members are more socioeconomically, ethnically and ideologically diverse than members of offline book clubs, and whose discussions are more wide-ranging and challenging as a result. The brainchild of actor and UN Women Goodwill ambassador Emma Watson, Our Shared Shelf testifies both to the growing popularity of virtual feminist book clubs and to the specific strengths of online reading groups as educational tools.
Boasting almost a quarter of a million members worldwide, Our Shared Shelf is the most popular group on Goodreads.com, the online book rating and review platform with 80 million users (as of 2018). Launched in 2016, the group recommends feminist texts and books by women and hosts lively discussion threads that users can contribute to or create their own. Watson runs the club alongside a team of around ten moderators who recommend a book to members every two months. As a Brown University English Literature graduate, Watson’s reading group is considered more highbrow than Oprah’s Book Club, which some have criticised for commodifying literature for the middle classes and eschewing rigorous analysis in favour of a self-help ethos. It is nonetheless having the ‘Oprah Effect’. Based on the frequency with which users report that recommended books are sold out, it appears that most members are active participants and that they influence international book sales.
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Watson’s ambition with Our Shared Shelf was to educate others in equality and to learn more herself. Members’ contributions to the group suggest that many share her ambition and are enjoying relative success to that end. After having read and discussed Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, for example, some members professed to having learned of the inefficacy of ‘colour-blindness’ (the personal belief that everyone is equal regardless of skin colour) since it involves turning a blind eye to racism. Emma Watson herself confesses to having learned a lot from Eddo-Lodge’s polemic work, calling it ‘the most important book’ she had read in 2018 and one that prompted probing questions about her brand of feminism.
One of the dangers of book clubs is the creation of echo chambers, whereby through reading the same book, members share or develop similar opinions. Based on my own experience of co-running a feminist reading group in Leeds last year, these book clubs especially run the risk of promoting intellectual and ideological sameness because they present certain books as compulsory reading for those committed to equality, and uphold feminist views. Moreover, simply calling a book club feminist can put people off – and not just sceptics and the socially-conservative who picture ‘angry, man hating, bra burning, dungaree clad women with hairy armpits’ as Eddo-Lodge satirically evokes in her blogpost ‘Is feminism a dirty word?’. As I found, many people – particularly men – wondering about their role in feminist activism may also give book clubs explicitly described as feminist a wide berth. The misinformation circulating about feminism (‘it’s just about women’, being one example), together with the denigration of the cause through terms like ‘feminazi’ does not exactly attract more people to the cause or to book clubs associated with it.
Our Shared Shelf is no echo chamber, however. In this sense, the group’s cover photo is misleading. To a greater extent than offline reading groups, members of book clubs like Our Shared Shelf have divergent views and interests, and they herald from places as far flung as the US, Egypt and Australia. One of Our Shared Shelf’s recent threads on The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write edited by Sabrina Mahfouz represents a conversation between, amongst others: a Sudanese Muslim woman with experience of Islamophobia; a white woman ashamed of non-Muslims’ participation in ‘othering’ Muslims; a Frenchman anxious about radical Islamism; and a French, Muslim, hijab-wearing woman concerned with challenging some of the Frenchman’s ignorance and prejudices. Indeed, it is the diversity of members that allows them to learn about social issues facing different communities, and to subsequently develop new, potentially more feminist patterns of thinking.
Members not only have diverse backgrounds and views, but also participate in the book club for different reasons. Some arrive simply as fans of Watson (who were criticised in one discussion thread). Some are vociferous readers seeking more varied material. Some are active feminists looking to expand their reading lists as well as to educate and learn from other members. And some simply want to share their love of books and make new, like-minded friends.
You may imagine that opportunities for friendship between members of online book clubs are scarce since exchanges are primarily virtual, irregular, and led by recommended reading. It seems unlikely, therefore, that online platforms will eradicate completely the demand for offline reading groups. In my experience, it was important that we met in person for a sense of community, for the very act of taking up space as feminists, and for some much-needed (and often boozy) social contact during busy working weeks. Our Shared Shelf users have, however, creatively amalgamated the possibilities of both online and offline reading groups by creating online discussion threads to organise meet-ups around the world. Such is the demand among members for friendship and meetings in person that moderators have created a discussion thread about online safety. ‘The personal is the political,’ goes the popular second-wave feminist slogan; ‘but the political is also the personal,’ cry members of virtual feminist reading groups. Our Shared Shelf users have successfully carved out a new space for feminist activism that enjoys the intellectual diversity provided by the virtual while satisfying the very human need for physical and emotional closeness.
With the growth of online, offline and increasingly hybrid feminist reading groups, the way we do feminism may be set to change. Virtual reading groups are making feminism more accessible than ever, meaning more people could begin to identify as feminists and to align themselves with their principles of equality. The endurance of offline book clubs meanwhile attests to how feminism can be enjoyable – a space for camaraderie and laughter. In its synthesis of the online and the offline, Our Shared Shelf realises both of these goals simultaneously. The centrality of reading and learning looks set to create a new wave of informed feminists who know their Maya Angelou from their Caitlin Moran.