Let's Chat About Books

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It started out as a bit of a scam. A few weeks ago, I casually suggested to my editor that I write a column on online reading clubs. "They're really interesting, and there are tons of them," I said, after conducting a seven-minute search on the topic. "Good idea," he replied, much to my amazement. Yippee! Now I could spend a couple of weeks reading and talking about mysteries, silly novels and lofty literature, all in the name of service journalism.

One small problem: while there are thousands of online book clubs for discussing, not buying, books, I quickly learned that most have no focused topic to discuss. What's worse, many are virtual ghost towns long since abandoned by their participants. Unwilling to admit failure--or admit how little time I had spent "researching" this idea--I plowed through dozens of clubs until I found some winners.

The best place to start is in the books section of Yahoo clubs (at clubs.yahoo.com) and groups (at groups.yahoo.com). While chat rooms are available, most of the action takes place in postings to message boards like the Book Group List, where members engage in deep, no-nonsense talks--most recently on Milan Kundera's Immortality--that remind me of my English classes at Dartmouth. My favorite Yahoo club was Bookworms, where we talked about A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. I liked the group; it fostered down-to-earth conversations in which people felt free to disagree and explain why. (I'm looking forward to a group starting in August devoted to New York Times best sellers, beginning with John Grisham's A Painted House.)

Next I checked out the online version of Oprah's book club, where through Labor Day readers are discussing Cane River by Lalita Tademy. Unlike other clubs I visited, oprah.com lets you click on an audio excerpt read by the author. The chat room was pretty dead, but plenty of people had posted messages. But even gushing endorsements such as "I cannot express how much I love this book" and "I was totally mesmerized by Cane River" couldn't get me past the first 100 pages.

For light stuff like mysteries and romances, I found the liveliest discussions in the "books" section of America Online. Postings are minimal, but the live chats are fun. I joined the Whodunit on Wednesday group, which reads a new mystery every week. When I confessed during a chat that I hadn't finished a Jonnie Jacobs book they were discussing, they kindly talked around the ending so as not to ruin it for me. I felt so indebted that I stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish the 400-page thriller by Stuart Woods that they were planning to discuss next. I was surprised how much fun we had debating which clues were obvious and which caught us by surprise.

Now, if only I could wangle an assignment that required a week on the beach...

Questions for Anita? E-mail her at hamilton@time.com