From Zoom to virtual reality: Pandemic pushes Duluth book clubs online

Melinda Lavine, Duluth News Tribune, Minn.
·8 min read

Mar. 27—The pandemic pushed our concerts, movies and even our book clubs online.

Across the globe, book clubs sprung or swelled, connecting readers to young incarcerated writers, those looking to read and serve, or dive into LGBTQ+ history. Whether facilitated by an NFL athlete or an Oscar-winning actress, these virtual groups offer an outlet for anyone with online access.

Some Northlanders took advantage of being able to reach far and wide — and in one case, into another realm of reality — while others embraced regional offerings or are holding out for the real thing.

Here's a look at how some Twin Ports readers are logging in to talk books during COVID-19.

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About 14 people logged into a recent meeting of the Last Word Book Club. The topic: Erik Larson's "The Splendid and the Vile."

"He has a way of pulling you in with the pacing," said one member.

There were head nods, one frozen screen incident and talk of a Hulu adaptation of another book by Larson called "The Devil in the White City."

Last Word has been together since 1991, said Barbara Fischer, an original participant.

The wonderful thing about video conferencing is that former members or snowbirds, who had moved to other states, can participate safely and easily, Fischer said.

During the meeting, Jane Brissett Zoomed in from Minneapolis, Yvette Krech from Florida.

While they may have switched how they gather, Last Word still keeps its membership to about 20, and they meet regularly on the second Thursday of the month.

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One Duluthian is taking virtual book clubs to the next level — in virtual reality.

Heidi Harrison has made it through the pandemic in part with the help of her Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality system. "It's a social outlet, something to do when I was home. It's so cool, so immersive, feels like you're really there," she said.

She visits with friends and other women; she plays ping-pong or mini golf.

About a month ago, she thought of launching a VR book club. She posted to her Facebook group, Oculus Quest Ladies, and more than 100 women — from Europe to Australia — reached out.

Next, a library was created in AltspaceVR, specifically for book club members, or, their avatars, to meet.

They're discussing Lucy Foley's "The Guest List" during two time slots this week — one after work hours and another during the weekend, a friendlier option for international time zones.

The Duluth Public Library Senior Library Technician in Youth Services has participated in two or three book clubs over the years. She never really played video games before this, but she's looking forward to discussions with people from other parts of the world.

"It's 'Ready Player One' come alive," Harrison said, referring to the science fiction book-turned-movie.

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Jennifer Jubenville was in the process of launching an online book club when COVID-19 hit.

While the Bookstore at Fitger's manager has hosted virtual author events and maintained book discussions through social media, Jubenville finally kicked off the store's first meeting in early March, at the urging of out-of-towners and a faithful reader of the shop's newsletter.

Jubenville said she also heard interest from New York, Illinois and Nebraska readers, and she saw an opportunity for insight from beyond Duluth.

"Independently owned businesses have had to figure out how to be creative and expand their outreach," she said.

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Duluth's Friday Club — which incidentally meets on Thursdays — is on sabbatical during the pandemic.

Things were changing so quickly a year ago, and the club's board opted to go on hiatus.

"We decided it would be really hard to meet by Zoom. It wasn't an easy decision, but we just took a year off," Kay Gower said. "Maybe we weren't being optimistic enough."

The decision lay in part to the 100-year-old group's unique format. Instead of an all-member read and chat, Friday Club participants conduct involved book review presentations. In the past year, some members have connected on their latest reads via email. Gower has also kept up her reading, and while she hasn't joined other clubs, she has become active in her church, which meets online.

"It's just been a year where I've stepped back," she said.

Group members miss their semi-monthly meetings in November and December; they miss their holiday luncheon. Asked if the Friday Club might see an eventual switch to virtual, Gower said, "At this point, no. If you had asked me in the fall, my answer might be different."

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On the first Wednesday of the month, about 10 people video chat from the Northland, the Twin Cities and Wisconsin for the Duluth Public Library's book club.

Participation is free with the library's prepared book kits, e-books and audiobooks for those not utilizing curbside pickup, but access can be tricky for people outside our area and without a Duluth library card, said DPL branch coordinator Lori Crocker.

"A lot of people would love to go back in-person, but I also know that this is a great, safe way to continue to connect, and every single time we meet, we're very vocally appreciative to be able to spend time together," she added.

While Crocker facilitates the DPL club, she's also a member of two other virtual groups because "two's not enough," she said with a laugh.

Crocker joins a Colorado-based group she used to lead, and she's involved in a casual club with three long-time friends.

"We got closer again when the pandemic hit because we had a little more time to connect, rekindle friendship time and 'us' time doing something we all bonded over originally, which was reading," Crocker said.

They meet semi-monthly; sometimes they skip a month. However often they meet, having this point of contact benefits her relationships and overall wellness.

Crocker said she doesn't have interpersonal interactions outside of work, so this is an opportunity to socialize and feel good about not losing connections. "To have quality time with other humans and not lose myself in isolation or solitude, but to actually be a part of the community," she said.

Asked if the DPL club might migrate to in-person, Crocker said it depends on safety guidelines and participants' comfort level.

"The library is here to serve the community," she said. "If a book club better serves the community virtually, that needs to be a discussion we will have."

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Cathy Cato of Duluth has been going to online meetings of Zenith Bookstore's Poetry Book Club for four months.

Discussing works by Nikki Giovanni and Lorine Niedecker, their talks flow similarly online as they do face-to-face, Cato said, but she still misses meeting in person.

Cato retired a year ago and said her life "slowed down tremendously." This has been important socially, as well as professionally. Studying and discussing poetry has helped her write more succinctly.

She's thankful for an online format, the benefits of which extend to her family:

"My sister, she's a good example. She's in India for a period of time, and she's still able to connect and read books to her children."

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Nikki Silvestrini co-led Zenith Bookstore's graphic novel and beer book club, which "fizzled and dissolved" when the pandemic hit — partly because it was tied to an in-person location.

We weren't sure how to juggle facilitating with the terms of changing conditions, she said. Also, a year ago, Zoom wasn't a tool Silvestrini or others used.

She was book club-less for a few months until July when she was approached about working with Chapter & Verse, which is a national group with chapters across the country.

The group is founded on educators, librarians and children's book enthusiasts.

They focus on classics, new and upcoming lit, award winners, and their discussions run the gamut of how literature has changed, to which grades would certain books appeal or what does this mean for kids today.

Before switching wholly online, Chapter & Verse met in a member's yard during the summer before moving to a garage (with an open door) in September.

Silvestrini saw many familiar faces from the Duluth's literary community and some she saw from beyond when they went virtual. "It's brought together so many interesting people from both coasts. ... The geographics don't matter," she said.

This year, they're reading "The Fearless Flights of Hazel Ying Lee"; "Tar Beach"; and "Some Places More Than Others"; Silvestrini is now the book selector for the Duluth chapter — a good fit because she is passionate about children's literature.

Silvestrini prefers to meet face-to-socially-distanced-face, to share a communal space, and she sees potential for certain chapters to remain wholly or quasi virtual as safety guidelines shift.

I definitely appreciate the technology that's given us this opportunity, she said, but:

"You can see people's reactions and you don't have to worry about long and weird technical difficulties and people's microphones not working."


— Duluth Public Library book clubs:

— Zenith Bookstore book clubs:

— Bookstore at Fitger's book club:

— To hear more about the virtual reality book club, contact Heidi Harrison at


Here are some virtual book clubs that stretch beyond the Northland:

— Oprah's Book Club 2.0

— Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop

— Andrew Luck Book Club

— Feminist Book Club

— Action Book Club

— Reese's Book Club

— Quarantini

— The Silent Book Club

— Mocha Girls Read

— Rebel Book Club