A lot of folks don’t read as much as they used to. In 2014, Pew reported that nearly 25 percent of American adults hadn’t read a single book in the past year. And “the number of non-book readers,” The Atlantic noted, “has nearly tripled since 1978.”
What about tech-obsessed young people? Many have their doubts that Millennials can keep reading alive—what with stories assuring us that “The Bachelor” is the new book club, and reports that the young spend more time on their phones than any other age group.
But there are some signs that younger generations are rediscovering a love of reading. According to a 2017 Pew poll, 18- to 29-year-olds are those most likely to have read a book in any format over the past year. It’s likely that school accounts for much of this reading—as Forbes reporter Neil Howe notes, “millennials are far more likely than older adults to say [their reading is] for a specific purpose, such as work, school, or research”—but Pew also found that young people are “equally likely to read ‘for pleasure’ or ‘to keep up with current events.’”
This is a great trend, but it’s also one that remains a lonely pursuit, and might easily fall off post-college if not for some fellowship and accountability.
Recent studies have found that many Millennials—even those who are smart, successful, and digitally connected—are struggling with loneliness. A General Social Survey published last year found that the number of Americans with no close friends has tripled since 1985. In a 2011 study, 86 percent of Millennials reported feeling lonely and depressed. It seems that, even as our Facebook friend circles expand into the hundreds and even thousands, our real-life circles of comrades and kindred spirits are steadily dwindling.
Perhaps our growing love of books can be a solution to this difficulty. Many associate book clubs with an older generation of readers, but a revival of these focused, communal gatherings could stem the tide of isolation that threatens us in our digitalized and displaced time.
One friend of mine, Kira, has seen firsthand how book clubs can foster community and friendship. She has started four book clubs since college: one at Harvard, one in Pittsburgh, and two in Arlington, Virginia. While her first club consisted of college students and their significant others, moving to Pittsburgh presented a different challenge. Kira wanted to create a book club that was explicitly place-focused. “I joined a couple of running clubs and made some friends there, but the majority of my [book club] members came through an announcement I put up on Next Door,” Kira recalls. “From that posting, I got about 15 interested women and on a regular basis had between six and 10 women show up for each club.” Even though Kira and her husband have since moved to Arlington, her Pittsburgh book club is still going strong in her absence.
In Arlington, Kira has created two book clubs: one with a group of old college friends who like to discuss more theological books, and one neighborhood club akin to her Pittsburgh group, also built through the Next Door app. “Right now, my main focus is on building friendships,” she says.
Kira chooses the books for her group, and generally likes to prepare a set of questions. She notes that, as members grow more comfortable with each other, conversation becomes relaxed and organic. Her groups have read classics like The Brothers Karamazov, and more recently works like Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. In the past, she’s served coffee and tea with a treat like scones or apple bread. Recently, she’s started serving dinner and wine as part of the gathering.
But regardless of format or genre, she says “there’s something almost magical” about the book club’s ability to foster community: “In the midst of discussing a plot point or character trait, we fall into deep friendship.” She points to a P.G. Wodehouse quote: “There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.”
I’ve also found reading literature in community—whether in a book club, with a sibling, friend, parent, or spouse—to be an incredibly comforting and growing experience. My fellow readers often stretch and challenge my presuppositions, forcing me to look twice at characters I may dislike or ideas I may be uncomfortable with. They point out beautiful details and quotes I might otherwise have overlooked. And our discussions often transcend the page, touching on larger life issues we may be dealing with. One friend and I put together an email “book club” after college because we were too physically distant to meet regularly. But via email, we read Ernest Hemingway together and discussed life challenges and successes. My husband and I usually try to read at least one book together per year—aloud on the couch after our toddler is in bed, or via Audible in the car. We’ve introduced each other to childhood favorites, read books about theology and philosophy, and indulged in fun novels together.
A new blessing I’ve discovered is my sister-in-law’s book club, which meets every other week over tea and cookies (or fresh bread, olives, and cheese—we’re flexible). It’s become a safe space, a way to unwind and rest amidst the craziness and loneliness of life. New friendships have blossomed, hearts and stomachs have been nourished, minds have grown and been challenged. The group is diverse—we don’t always like the same book, or agree on all the ideas therein—but that’s only sharpened and brightened our discussions.
Starting a book club might seem frightening to some. It’s not always easy to think of book ideas, or to take the time to prepare questions and food. One way to ease the burden associated with hosting is to rotate the home in which friends meet, and let members take turns picking a book and preparing questions. (Meeting in a public space like a coffee shop or restaurant can also ease that burden, but it can take some of the intimacy out of the gathering and make it a little more expensive for members to participate.) Clubs can also be thematic in nature—work their way through the classics, tackle a philosophical or political question, or focus on newer works of literature, for instance—in order make picking books a bit easier.
It’s difficult, as we enter new stages of our life or new spheres of work and living, to keep community alive. Churches and running clubs, dog parks and libraries, school events and town hall meetings, can all help us meet and mingle. But there’s something special about a close, small gathering of readers, all eager to deepen their knowledge of the world, the written word, and each other. Such gatherings seem uniquely suited to combat our collective disillusionment—and foster joy, hope, and camaraderie in their place.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.