Ah, the book club: a Wednesday night hotchpotch of the ill-acquainted, bonding – or falling out – over the nuances of the latest must-read in the (un)atmospheric confines of the local pub/café/someone's sitting room. You wouldn't miss it for the world. Would you?
But what if you could enjoy all the benefits of your literary get-together minus the actual getting together? Increasingly, it seems, book lovers are looking to the internet for places to debate their favourite novels. Thanks to a burgeoning collection of literary-minded websites, the book group has gone online.
Google the words "online book club" and you are greeted by countless results – from small-scale start-ups to sprawling bookshops-cum-recommendation sites such as lovereading.co.uk and booksdirect.co. uk. Possibly the biggest of the big is Goodreads (goodreads.com). Since its launch, in December 2006, the website has managed to attract more than 4.2 million members, all of whom are able to recommend and review books, compare what they are reading, keep track of what they would like to read, and form book clubs. Users sign in using already-existing Facebook, Twitter or Google accounts and search through their email contacts to see who else they know who is on the site. They then "follow" one another, receiving notification when their online "friends" update their reader profile, and establishing mini discussion forums among themselves.
Several sites employ a similar concept: Amazon's Shelfari allows members to combine discussion with customised lists (top 10 beach reads, for instance), and the newly launched Copia offers all of the usual book club functions as well as a desktop application to turn your computer into an e-reader. Yesterday, meanwhile, figment.com launched what The New York Times has described as a "literary Facebook for the teenage set". Offering a free platform for young people wanting to read and write fiction, users are encouraged to post their work – be it in the form of a novel, short story or poem – and are given the opportunity to collaborate with other writers and offer feedback on one another's posts.
Elsewhere, in the world of the smartphone, boundaries are being pushed even further. BlackBerry users will soon be able to make use of Kobo, an application which allows phone owners to discuss books in real time using BlackBerry Messenger. And Android fans can download the Android Book Club, which accesses the New York Times Best Seller list, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The iPhone's Kindle application, meanwhile, allows groups of contacts to set up their own exclusive review clubs.
Unsurprisingly, given this explosion of online literary activity, book publishers are keen to get in on the action. Penguin now offers an online readers' forum for enthusiasts to discuss their views. As well as hosting a variety of threads on specific subjects, it allows readers to gather in person with its geographically ordered meet-up listings. And Random House offers a "Readers Place" with reading guides, competitions – even recipe ideas for those hoping to meet up in person. The book group, it seems, is ready for the 21st century.