Friday, January 9

When is a book club not a book club?

 Apparently Mark Zuckerberg may or may not have started a book club. If you read the information on his Facebook page, Zuckerberg says he decided he would try to read a book every two weeks. He invites people to follow his progress and created a Facebook page, A Year of Books, for that purpose. And then he invites people to discuss the books with him and others, provided, of course, they've read the books. Let the sniping and commentary begin.

One quick note is that I think reading a book every two weeks is ambitious for many people. I'm a fast reader and could easily read a book every two weeks. . .provided my schedule and other obligations permit. Zuckerberg will figure out his capacity and maybe he'll continue to try to read a book every two weeks and maybe that will change. But it's his resolution.

On the A Year of Books page, the information makes it sound like a book club as he says
We will read a new book every two weeks and discuss it here. Our books will emphasize learning about new cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies. Suggestions for new books to read are always welcome. We ask that everyone who participates read the books and we will moderate the discussions and group membership to keep us on topic.
But maybe by "we" he means his wife and him. They''ll be reading a new book every two weeks and they're inviting people to read and discuss with them.

So it's kind of a book club, but not really.

What's amusing, and a tiny bit irritating to me, is the commentary on Zuckerberg's resolution. As a public figure, he didn't have to share this resolution with anyone. And it's his resolution. He wants to read books that "emphasize learning about new cultures, beliefs, histories, and technologies." Good for him. Reading is learning and learning is growing.

Charlotte Wilder of takes exception to his resolution, calling it problematic and wondering who Zuckerberg is to decide what is "new." Well, maybe they're new to him. Sheesh. Wilder goes on a short rant that Zuckerberg should have been more specific rather than giving him some latitude about his intent. But mostly, methinks, she wants the attention because of the provocative title of her post, which reads: "Here's the Problem With Mark Zuckerberg's New Year's Resolution" and we could get into all kinds of trouble with that.

James Walton of The Telegraph chimes in with an opinion that Zuckerberg is making reading a chore because the first book he listed is not a novel. But Walton also makes an interesting point about reading and why we choose which books to read. Entertainment? Relevance? Nifty cover? Interesting random passages? Familiar author? Unfamiliar author? Cool title? Well, the answer is that some or all of the above are often true.

Walton mentions that Nick Hornby created a bit of controversy when he stated that people should ditch the books they aren't enjoying or that are difficult. I remember reading a column by Mary Schmich some time ago in which she discussed the point at which one might reasonably abandon a book. For readers, abandoning a book can be difficult. We persevere less out of a sense of duty, as Hornby suggests, and more out of a hope the thing will get better. Then, at some point, determined only by the reader and the book, we decide to gut it out because we want to know how the writer resolves the story or the conclusions at which the writer arrives. I'd wager there is considerable skimming between that point and the end; there is for me.

Walton also observes that if we read only books that may be relevant or a means of self-improvement, we may be missing the point of reading. Come again? I think the point of reading is often self-improvement, even if indirectly. When I read novels, I inevitably have the opportunity to learn something about myself. Sometimes I do read pure "brain candy" and probably don't learn much of anything about anything except whether or not I like that writer, and that's no small thing.

Stephen Poole of The Guardian asks about Zuckerberg's first choice and pontificates most elegantly on that question. Oh who cares why he chose that book? He chose it for his own reasons, whether or not you like them and whether or not you want to read the book or have read it. What's more interesting to me are his comments about Oprah and those pondering the practicality of trying to moderate a book group of such large numbers.

I have to address the Oprah thing because I find that too amusing. When Oprah started her book club, she did so with the usual Oprah fanfare and libraries around the world took advantage of her choices to try to have in-person discussions about those books. Oprah got people buying books and going to libraries to talk about books. Not a bad thing. Zuckerberg isn't trying to do that. He's reading books and inviting you to know what books he's reading and to offer up a discussion about that books. I am willing to bet he's also learning more than we can imagine about what people want and how they might use Facebook in the process. Pretty smart of him.

As for moderating the book group, he's not going to do that. Maybe he'll hire someone to moderate the book discussion but he's not really creating a MOOC-like book club on Facebook. Not yet anyway. That will come after he's learned more about user participation and expectations, and the limitations and possibilities of Facebook.

So here's the deal from my perspective:
  • Mark Zuckerberg has decided to try to read a book every two weeks
  • He created a Facebook page so the world will know what books he's reading and can offer insightful or inane comments
  • From this experience, he will learn whatever he chooses to learn from the books he chooses to read whether we agree or not
  • From this experience, he will learn even more about Facebook users and about the limitations and possibilities of Facebook
  • He may learn to be more specific in what he states about his intentions, and even if he does, plenty of people will be waiting in the wings to pass judgement on what he has to say and to speculate on why he has said it.
And, most importantly, more people may read more books and may themselves learn more about themselves and the world in which they live.

Read on.

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