Book club goes virtual Reading: Baltimore County's group accepts anyone online.

October 26, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The members of the this new book club have never met, and they know each other only through their e-mail nicknames.

But when it comes to the quality of their literary discussions, Baltimore County's Virtual Book Club is as sophisticated as any group that meets in the county's library branches or people's homes.

"We're having really interesting conversations and a lot of people offer excellent analysis of the books," said Susan Lee, 44, an Anne Arundel County librarian who has been in the book club for about two months. "I really enjoy learning about what everyone else is reading and what they think of the books."

Formed in May, the organization is the latest effort by the Baltimore County library to use technology to expand its reach into the community, said Nancy K. Reger, the system's information services coordinator. The club is open to anyone, anywhere with an Internet e-mail account.

"Our goal in the libraries is to get people to read, and book clubs are a great way to do that," Reger said. "But a lot of people don't have the time in their busy schedules to meet at a regular time once or twice a month for a traditional book club. So we decided to try something that was more flexible."

Having seen literary discussions on the Web sites of national news publications, library officials decided to try their own hand - particularly when they could not find anything similar in Maryland. They were helped by the county library's extensive computer capabilities, which include low-cost Internet accounts for area residents.

The book club works like most electronic mailing lists. Members direct their comments to the library's main server, which distributes it to all members through e-mail.

Messages range from appeals for book recommendations to in-depth analyses of writing styles in such books as Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes: A Memoir."

The club has also taken up "The Color of Water" by James McBride, "Charms for the Easy Life" by Kaye Gibbons and "Growing Up" by Russell Baker. October's titles are "Cold Mountain" by Charles Frazier and "Practical Magic" by Alice Hoffman.

"I have had trouble finding books that I want to read," said Ingrid Castronovo, a social worker who lives in Lutherville. "The book club has recommended some books that I never would have thought to read, and so far, I have enjoyed them."

At first, library officials posted recommended discussion questions for each book, but they soon discovered that members prefer to generate their own topics. They're also asking members to help select books for the group to discuss and using those suggestions to make decisions on how many copies to buy for the library's 15 branches.

"This is a wonderful way for us to hear directly from our readers about what they want to read," Reger said. "We don't have very many opportunities like that."

The book club is attracting participants far from Maryland. One of the group's most active members is Joi Ramey, a stay-at-home mom from Chattanooga, Tenn.

"I was searching the Internet looking for book clubs, and this was the only one that I could find that seemed to focus only on discussing books," Ramey said. "That's one of the great things about the Internet. With most book clubs, you have to be in the same town for meetings, but with this it doesn't matter how far away I live."

Reger said she hopes to expand the concept with book clubs tailored to specific interests such as romance and science fiction.

"We're even thinking about next spring holding a big reception to mark the one-year anniversary of the group," Reger said. "Then, our book club could meet face to face for the first time. But I guess they would need name-tags with their electronic mail on them so people could recognize each other."

The virtual book club's Web address is www.bcplonline.org/centers/library/bookclub.html.

Pub Date: 10/26/98

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