It was May when One Book, One Bronx kicked off virtual meetings with All About Love by bell hooks. Tensions were high as the country was already nearly three months into the pandemic and George Floyd had recently died at the hands of Minneapolis police, sparking a summer of political protests and national reflection.
Ron Kavanaugh, founder of The Literary Freedom Project and of the club, recalled that almost 80 people had tuned in for those first few meetings – a number that, he said, they wouldn’t have been able to accommodate at their usual Mott Haven meeting spot, the BronxArtSpace gallery on E. 140th Street.
“Stuff like that can only happen on Zoom. That’s one of the beautiful things about this virtual platform,” said Kavanaugh. “It has increased our scope and our reach.”
One Book, One Bronx focuses on books that “reflect the racial, economic, and gender demographics of the borough,” according to their website. They also facilitate a book club in partnership with the Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education, based in Longwood. Yet virtual strangers from across the country – and from as far as South Africa – have joined these hyperlocal book clubs to discuss novels that include New York City classic “Bodega Dreams” by Ernesto Quiñonez.
The country’s switch to remote work has made book clubs much more accessible for book lovers and many are joining in search of community, especially during these times.
Regina Roberts co-founded Bronx Lattes and Literature which used to meet at coffee shops across the Bronx, Westchester and Harlem.
While the group boasts 917 members on Meetup.com, their online meetings remain small and intimate, which is the sort of simplicity that Roberts was looking for when creating the group. She said the meetings serve as “a sort of escapism” from members’ “current worries.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s two of us sitting there talking, or 17 of us,” she said. “It’s always a good time.”
Organizing your own book club has gotten easier with services such as Bookclubz.com, which allows users to create and coordinate book choices and meetings. The site saw their user growth rate nearly double to 30% between March and June, and the average number of club members increased from seven people to 13.
“The Netflix binge was great but it’s not necessarily satiating,” said Bookclubz co-founder Nancy Brown. “I think folks are looking for something a little bit more meaningful.”
Bronx book clubs have seen such diverse audiences due to their carefully curated reading lists that inspire discussions about topics that are pertinent to people of color, such as the criminal justice system, race and identity.
Tiffany Martinbrough has been a member of One Book, One Bronx since before the pandemic started. “People will discuss the book, and then they’ll insert personal stories or thoughts about the book, which we can generally all relate to, because we’re [all] mostly women of color,” she said. “It’s just never a dull moment.”
Martinbrough continues to attend meetings on a semi-regular basis as a way of maintaining this “new normal.”
“Just like a way to remind me that this is something fun that I did pre-quarantine,” she said. “So, it’s like one foot in the old and then one foot in the new.”