Every year, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces a “personal challenge” in January that he plans to tackle for the rest of the year. In 2011 he vowed to only eat meat from animals he’d killed himself, and in 2014 he promised to write one thank you note every day. (I don’t know about you, but I never received one.) This year, he’s announced the challenge of reading two books a month, and he plans to bring whoever cares to join him along through a Facebook book club, A Year of Books.
I read constantly and review books for newspapers and websites, but I’ve never joined a book club — I’m afraid I’ll be required to read books I disdain, and then have to stifle my opinions of them to avoid offending anyone. I’ve visited book clubs a few times, and I had a blast, but then the group members were discussing my novel, and the ladies relentlessly plied me with appetizers and wine. One night spent with a book club celebrating your novel can instantly make up for 10 years of penniless toil. Almost.
Despite its lack of free-flowing wine, I thought I’d give Zuckerberg’s A Year of Books a shot. There are other digital book clubs around, including several on GoodReads. One, The Next Best Book Club, has more than 14,000 members, accepts suggestions about what to read, and announces choices in advance so people have plenty of time to participate. Other groups are more focused in their subject matter, such as the Great African Reads group or The Readers Review: Literature from 1810 to 1900. Still, even the largest of these groups don’t have the reach that Facebook does — as of late January, more than 282,000 people had joined A Year of Books.
One distinctive aspect of A Year of Books so far is that Zuckerberg is picking complex nonfiction books that detail theories about contemporary society. Oprah’s books touched on contemporary issues, but since they were mostly fiction, her emphasis was on stories and communing around books. Through Facebook, Zuckerberg’s influence over Americans arguably rivals that of Oprah during the prime of her television show. Is Zuckerberg trying to step up as a thought leader through starting this book club? Maybe, but as always, he’s bound to do it in his own unique way. Don’t expect him to advise people about “Remembering Your Spirit” anytime soon.
Zuckerberg kicked off his year of reading with “The End of Power” by Moisés Naím, former executive director of the World Bank. By all accounts it is a well-written, thoughtful book, in which Naím argues, “Power is decaying. From boardrooms and combat zones to cyberspace, battles for power are as intense as ever, but they are yielding diminishing returns. Their fierceness masks the increasingly evanescent nature of power itself. Understanding how power is losing its value — and facing up to the hard challenges this poses — is the key to making sense of one of the most important trends reshaping the world in the twenty-first century.”
Zuckerberg invited people to discuss Naím’s ideas on the group page and to “keep all conversation relevant to the book.” But by the time my copy of “The End of Power” came in at the library, Zuck had already announced his second pick, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker.
Less Wine, More Smackdowns
Back in the halcyon days of Oprah’s Book Club, Oprah’s people would work behind the scenes with publishers to print massive runs of the soon-to-be-picked books, keeping everything top secret until Oprah announced the title on her show. (Since she left network television, Oprah started the e-reader-friendly Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, but has only featured three books since 2012.) She gives the audience a generous time period during which to read the book — usually several months, and most people who wanted a copy of the book could find it because so many had been printed and stocked.
Theoretically, in 2015 this shouldn’t be a problem, because an unlimited quantity of e-books are available. But some readers are on a library budget, and some don’t read e-books. According to the Pew Research Center’s most recent survey, only 4 percent of people read e-books exclusively, while 28 percent read at least one e-book last year. Still, that’s nothing compared with the 69 percent of people surveyed who read a book in print last year.
Scrolling through the first posts people wrote about Naím’s book, far more of them were logistical in nature than were substantive discussions of the ideas. Many book clubbers weren’t able to purchase or borrow the book in time, but when they complained, others reprimanded them. There’s less wine, more smackdowns in the Facebook book group.
“Still can’t get my hands on a copy,” read one book club member’s plaintive post. “Read the next one or don’t participate,” another member replied, channeling Ayn Rand. Still, there’s a moral consciousness at work in this book club: Some people posted pdfs of the books, but the most popular post on one of the threads was Joe Abascal’s: “To those posting a free pdf please stop; authors should be compensated for their hard work.” It appears the free pdfs have been removed.
Stephen Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” was out of stock on Amazon a few days after Zuckerberg announced it as the second pick on January 18, but Barnes & Noble seemed to have a steady supply. According to Publisher’s Weekly, the publishers of Zuck’s first two book picks have been scrambling to keep them in print. Pinker’s book is 832 pages long in print format, which prompted several outcries. “761 pages,” read one whose author was so alarmed he couldn’t remember how to spell Zuck’s first name, “Marc, please.”
A large percentage of the people posting on A Year of Books plea for more advance notice about upcoming books, often citing extenuating circumstances such as the fact that they live in Brazil. Others beg for Zuck to cut a deal with some large retailer for book discounts. Still other posts come from authors suggesting that their own books be chosen next time. Or that Zuck pick a children’s book. Some try, in vain, to shut the logistical banter down. Karen Osness wrote, “Less chatter on how to obtain the book. We all can figure out how to do this. More discussion about the content please.”
One of the chief complaints people have about in-person book clubs is that members often don’t talk about or actually read the book and instead brag and grumble about their kids and problems, but I think I’d rather hear about kids and problems than all these gripes about the logistics of purchasing a book.
On January 12, the Year of Books page hosted a live Q&A session with Moises Naím, and several of the comments and questions under this post stuck much more closely to the subject matter of the book. However, it appears that most members hadn’t done their homework. Out of the 250,000 or so members at that time, only about 65 posted comments on the Q&A, compared with over 800 comments posted to the various “How do I get this book?/Shut up about getting the book” threads.
My impression of the book club in its first weeks is that this is Zuck’s challenge — he’s going to read these books at his pace and if you can’t keep up with him, that’s your problem. You’d probably fall behind on one of his self-killed meat hunts too. It’s not like Oprah’s club where she wanted to make it easy for everyone to get the book, pump up the publishing industry, and encourage everyone to read it together at the same time.
Those who want Zuck to actually respond to their comments would do better to post them to his Year of Reading Blog page–he doesn’t answer the people who are having trouble finding the books, but he’s responded several times to commenters who wrote specific remarks about the books.
Despite the lack of logistical planning for the Facebook book club, it’s giving publishers a boost. According to the New York Times, Naím’s book had sold 20,000 copies in all formats before Zuck chose it, and since then has sold more than 20,000 e-books alone.
Dispatches from FacebookLand
So if you skip reading the posts on the Year of Books Facebook page except for the author Q&A’s, what else does Zuckerberg’s book club have to offer? Some blog posts and emails from Zuck that are surprisingly entertaining, perhaps not intentionally so.
There’s something either robotic or lawyerly about the communications. When I joined the Year of Books email list, I received a message that addressed me as “Valued Member,” an oddly flattering honorific, and included a paragraph-long disclaimer about privacy, as well as this sentence: “A Year of Books is a community which has the mission to promote reading and sharing of interesting reading books.”
Yep, I want to read some interesting reading books. In fact, when I go to the bookstore I ask the bookseller, “Do you have any interesting reading books?” I can see one of my college literature professors striking out the word “interesting” in Zuck’s email, saying, “The thing about the word interesting is that it isn’t very interesting.” The greeting is signed “Sincerely, Mark – A Year of Books.” It’s a little chilly, especially compared with the boozy hugs and astonishing personal revelations that greeted me at the book clubs I visited.
The first post on Zuck’s book blog begins, “Overview I, Mark Zuckerberg, embarked on a personal challenge about reading two books every month. The first book I chose was The End of Power by Moises Naim. The various dynamics shaping the power landscape have been a matter of investigation for long.”
I can picture Zuck bursting into a boardroom where all of us have assembled, waiting, dressed in our best suits, hoping to pick the brain of one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people, and when he finally arrives, instead of saying hello, he busts out with: “Overview I, Mark Zuckerberg…” What a weird way to begin a sentence, and what’s with the passive voice? Who has been investigating the “various dynamics shaping the power landscape” for “long”? Where is the power landscape? Is it in Davos, Silicon Valley, a BMW dealership or some other place I can’t afford to visit? I’m just a humble book reader.
But maybe I’m not so humble. According to Zuck’s January 14 blog post, “14 Tips About Reading That Will Change Your Life,” reading makes you a “Master of Vocabulary,” and enables you to “impress people at school, at meetings, by giving speeches or even when making new acquaintances by using a varied vocabulary.” Apparently that varied vocabulary makes you fascinating, spellbinding, and scintillating.
Furthermore, Zuck writes, “Knowledge is charm.” That is, people are likely to admire you for your superior skills when they find out you are a reader. Zuck writes, “Most people are a little impressed when you mention that you even sometimes read. It shows that you are a profound person and that you are not an ordinary person or a shallow one.”
I’ve found this to be true. When I mention that I’m a book critic, people tend to bow toward me deeply and then seek my counsel about their most vexing questions. Try it next time you’re at a bar: Go up to an attractive individual and announce, “I even sometimes read.”
Still, It’s Got More People Reading Books
So far, A Year of Books has demonstrated that Facebook is a good resource for learning about books to read and it allows readers to interact with the authors of the book. But as for significant discussion, readers would probably find more of that in a digital book club with fewer members or an old-fashioned, in-person book club.
For all of the Facebook book club’s flaws, I can’t fault its intentions. It’s bringing attention to some substantive books, even if the thousands of members can’t all manage to acquire and read the books within the two-week time period. As Zuck points out, “reading really reduces stress,” not to mention increases empathy and attentiveness, according to various studies.
There’s something about reading that quiets the hollow gnawing inside us that comes from too many hours spent looking at a screen, scrolling through social media websites on which others declare their superior capabilities for acquiring and reading books. A Year of Reading is, like Facebook, a little rowdy, disorganized, crowded, and filled with people you might avoid in person, but it still delivers some moments of connection and insight.
The Year of Books Page is teeming with suggestions from members about how to make the book club better, more efficient, and more organized. There’s little chance that Zuck will ever read these pleas. Still, I have one suggestion of my own: Maybe Zuck could invite a few of his Valued Members to his house for a meeting, where we could dine on an animal that he’d killed himself, and then we’d all write him thank you notes. Plus, there should be plenty of wine.
Jenny Shank‘s novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award. Her stories, essays, satire and reviews have appeared in The Guardian, TheAtlantic.com, McSweeney’s, and Dallas Morning News.