I’ve run dozens of deep reading club sessions by now, and I’m kind of obsessed with the format. It’s doing something new and wonderful in a subtle way I want to try and explain. Why deep reading clubs are fucking rad, a thread:
How a deep reading club works:
Someone chooses a book & invites a group to read it. You read together, aloud, taking the time it takes to read & absorb the text. You annotate the text together, then your annotations become the catalysts for whatever conversation comes next. I run these using a hacky combo of Zoom and Google Docs. They are the kind of social activity that is actually a good fit for Zoom because you do naturally read a book while sitting still, so it doesn’t feel unnatural like a zoom party.
Features of deep reading clubs:
No homework—no one should have to read ahead of time in order to get something out of the group. You come as you are, and all context is built during the event.
Space, always more space. The aim is to soak the text in deeply, not to race to the end. If you don’t get to the end, so be it.****
Every good dish starts with excellent ingredients. Choosing the right book is half the battle. It should be meaningful, nuanced, and well-written; some of the best books I’ve found were based on recommendations from people whose thinking I adore.****
I avoid like the plague any book that is touting a unified system to solve all my problems or something that was written to get its author highly-paid consulting gigs. Most of the bestsellers list in the business section is like this- a book that should have been a listicle.****
Heuristics I do use to choose a book:
Was this book someone’s life’s work?
Is there someone I know who found this book life-changing?
Is this the favorite book of multiple people I admire?
Is it beautifully written?
(Perusing the reading lists of writers I admire is also a wonderful strategy for finding great books—I am generally inspired by the taste of my favorite artists.)
Then, there’s creating the group. I run drop-in groups and long-term groups. Drop-in groups are great for variety and, just fun! I get to know new people in a much less bland way than online meetups can be. Long-term groups are beautiful in their own way, though. You can really get to know someone’s values through how they relate to a book over time. My Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism book club has been meeting for months and we’re now a spiritual sangha of sorts.
So the book is chosen, the group is set—then there’s the actual reading aloud. The first thing that is surprising—it’s slow. And that’s a good thing. Deep book clubs have a gentle pace that make them relaxing and easy to spend time in. The live reading forces you to slow down, and gives you the time and space to catch parts where you’re confused, or have a strong emotional reaction, or something surprises you. It’s easy to jump over this stuff when you’re reading alone, but when you’re actively following along and annotating it’s straightforward to notice it.
Reading aloud in a group also has a pretty low barrier to entry, at least for adults. Often in group zoom events, the loudest voices dominate, but when you take turns to read you get a glimpse into the personality of everyone who reads. Different book groups have different discussion processes, depending on the book structure and the group dynamics. I like to encourage reflective conversation starting from individual responses, then small groups, then integrating back into larger groups.
Being a good facilitator/steward is like being a good ball boy, or the cables of a boxing ring. Your work allows the play to continue; you continually bring the group back to the shared intention when they get off track.****
So, some reasons why these things are way fucking cooler than I expected:****
Goddamn but if this isn’t what religions do. The difference between ‘my collaborators all said they’ve read this book’ and ‘we actually just all read it together’ are huge re: shared worldview. You can build such a tight collective understanding through this.
There’s a difference between putting earphones in on a commute (remember those?) while checking FB and closing your eyes on a couch while playing Frank Sinatra on good speakers with friends nearby. You can luxuriate in a good book the way you luxuriate in a bath.
Deep understanding takes patience, and time, and reflection. Most books don’t deserve this kind of attention, but there are still countless that do. Deep book clubs shape and service this open, curious attention.
The conversations after the reading in RE are consistently some of the most interesting I’ve had with strangers I’ve just met. It’s like having a friend who knows you very well introduce you to somebody—you have so much common ground, immediately.