May 31, 2011

Is this the future of the book club?


Printed books are not dead. Not yet, not by a long shot. Even if 2015 comes and predictions hold that half of all books sold are eBooks, the other half will still have a printing press to thank for their existence. (Whether the Barnes and Nobles and Borders of the world will still have bricks-and-mortar stores to sell them in is another story.)

And yet, one imagines a time in the not-too-distant future when the book clubs that meet in libraries, bookstores, coffee shops, and bars will mostly read not from dog-eared pages with notes in the margins, but a window on some electronic device open to a “page” of the particular title offering the occasion for a book club meeting. Yes, the day will come when a real spine will seldom be cracked or the image of a book’s jacket present when someone reads from their club’s “book.”

But there will surely be hold-outs. There will be people who gain as much pleasure from the tactile sensation a thoughtfully produced volume produces as from the ideas evoked by the words. And they will likely gather themselves together in book clubs.

So, thinking about this kind of thing as regularly as I do, when I encountered this article in the Toronto Standard (a new online-only publication I’ve grown quite fond of lately), it stood out. In it Jason McBride profiles an art book club in Toronto that meets monthly made up of conceptual artists–or “art people” as McBride refers to them–calling itself, simply, Book Club.

Here’s how McBride describes Book Club:

Book Club does not operate like a conventional book club, be it Oprah’s or your stepmother’s. It’s more of a highbrow kind of show-and-tell, with each member presenting and discussing favourite volumes from their various collections of artists books. No books are really read, strictly speaking, and rare are the titles that might even be described as fiction. The conversation doesn’t pivot on plot or character but instead on an artist’s biography, a book’s paper stock or its position in the annals of contemporary art history.

Book Club’s meetings are notable because they’re as much about “a shared aesthetic and an exuberant zeal for collecting” as they are a book’s subject. As McBride points out, “this is a book club whose members…collect books that are often themselves about books and language, or about the making of books, or even about themselves as books. It’s a bit like a nerdy baseball team that meets once a month and, instead of practicing, talk about league stats.”

Nerdy, sure, but Book Club may be indicative of something else. As the book industry begins to resemble the music industry more and more, one hopes that the Book Clubs of the world can make possible for books what audiophiles have done for vinyl–a significant number of people, passionate not just about the message but the medium through which it’s produced, creating a lucrative market for a technology that many experts will have written off.

While we could bemoan the oncoming wave of eBook dominance, for those of us who enjoy the experience of reading from a well-designed book, the future might not be so bad after all.