The Goodreads MENA Book Club is is slated to discuss three compelling books in the first half of 2018:
The Open Door, by Latifa Zayyat, trans. Marilyn Booth (Jan. – Feb.) – Melanie Magidow, leading
One Hundred and One Nights, ed.-trans. Bruce Fudge (May-June) – Melanie Magidow, leading
Code Name: Butterfly, by Ahlam Bsharat, trans. Nancy Roberts (June 15-July 31) – M. Lynx Qualey, leading
In advance of these discussions, translator-editor-scholar Melanie Magidow and MENA Book Club organizer and co-moderator “Nile Daughter” answered a few questions about the initiative, which you can find online.
So book clubs (from Arabic literary salons of the middle ages, to US women’s book groups of the 19th-20th c.) seem to have primarily a social event, although also of course with the aim of edifying oneself. How does a group like this function without the social aspect, the sweets, the coffee?
Melanie Magidow: Online book clubs retain a kind of social aspect, in the sense of social media. It’s a much more individualized experience than a book club that meets in-person. Digital media makes for more private spaces. This can lead to alienation in some ways, but it also leads to increased social connections in other ways. For example, there is less interaction through bodies (body language, body image, etc.), but there is more interaction across greater distances (geographical and potentially over social barriers as well, like race, class, etc.). Technology gives us the chance to get face-to-face also (in video chat), but our MENA Lit group has not utilized that tool yet.
Nile Daughter: Yes, I believe our online book club has a social aspect. True it is virtual, but how can you meet people from all over the world with different back grounds and cultures and crossing geographical boundaries? Only in social media. Goodreads belongs to the same category, but it is healthier compared to other types. Personally I made friendships here that I am very happy about.
Can you talk a little about how books are selected?
ND: Sometimes we have a theme and other times not. We use both moderators’ recommendations and members’, then we have polls.
MM: I don’t know the history of this, but I can speak for the present (and past couple of years). We tend to brainstorm together at the end of each year to see what everyone wants to read in the coming year. We also discuss format (focusing on specific countries, themes, etc.). Right now there is a lot of interest in a Challenge, a list of types of books to aspire to reading (for example, a book from Morocco, a book by a woman, a science fiction book, etc.). Members who choose to participate in a Challenge tailor it according to their own interests, and they may participate in a discussion thread specifically relating to the Challenge for that year. Members enjoy swapping suggestions and reflecting on their experiences together.
When the period set for brainstorming ends, a moderator (me this year) compiles the suggestions. Together, the moderators create polls based on those suggestions. Then all group members (regardless of how active they are, and we have hundreds of members around the world who are not very active) are invited to vote in each poll. The winners of the polls are then slotted into the calendar for the coming year, and these are the group reads, and they are generally always novels because that is the most popular genre among the most active members of the group. Right now, we are about half-way through our polls, and so we have about half of the new year planned as of now. Sometimes there is enough interest in books to warrant reading, even if the book did not win first place in a poll. In that case, we might suggest a “buddy read,” so members can discuss the book in a discussion thread, but it is not a discussion with a leader and the book is not announced or recorded with as much publicity as the standard group reads.
Who do you think could get something out of joining this book group? What does it offer to the bibliophile who may not have an Arab/Arabic-focused book group where they live? Who currently is active in the group?
MM: Some of the active members are from the Arab World, or of Arab descent, and many of these like to reflect on local issues or reconnect with cultural roots. Other active members are people who want to learn more about the Arab World, and reading can certainly help provide multiple perspectives.
What do you get out of belonging, personally?
ND: I’ve met nice open minded people, I learned from the intellectual interaction, and I felt that in this virtual world I manged to add a small useful contribution…I hope.
MM: I came across this group in a low point in my life. I was struggling to write my dissertation after burning out at the end of my fieldwork research. I traveled and worked too much, and needed something fun to rekindle my interest in my imaginative and intellectual life. Like most graduate students, I had decided that I didn’t have time to read for fun. So I had failed to nurture a part of myself that ended up being key in my creative and scholarly endeavors. Goodreads helped me, especially through its recommendations feature. I learned of authors who were new to me, and this expanded my horizons. It was exciting to see that there were more books in my favorite genres that I had never heard about before. I no longer use the recommendations feature because my to-read list is too long, but it’s nice to know it’s there!
Since then, I moved to a new state, had a baby, and opened my own company for translation and other services. And through life transitions such as these, I have found this group invaluable for giving me just enough structure to keep up with my reading, especially of Arabic literature. I lead discussions of books that are most important and fun to me personally. I also benefit by meeting people (including authors) and learning of books that I would not know of otherwise.
Do you see this as an educational venture, a social one, a literary one, something else?
MM: As a co-moderator in this group, I do not view myself as an educator so much as a coach and colleague. I contribute to the maintenance and creation of this space for people to discover through books and discussions. This is a safe space where all views are welcome, as long as they do not destroy the safety of the space for other members.
One nice feature of this group is the discussion threads staying open forever. They never expire. One can always contribute to a conversation even years after the initial group read of a certain book, and this provides a long-term community where individuals can explore books, and different views from readers, and then find a place where they can form and express their own perspectives. This is a community that can help people to grow as readers, as thinkers, and as human beings.
What role does the discussion leader play?
ND: To keep the discussion active. There is no manual, it is supposed to be spontaneous. It is not an academic group and we are not talking to or with specialized readers.
MM: A discussion leader opens the discussion thread, filling out the fields in the online form, and posting it. If they like, they can add some words of introduction. Throughout the conversation, they respond to posts to keep the conversation going. They are encouraging and respectful, and able to express their own opinions, but not to dominate the conversation.