Once a month, a group of friends meet up at a bar after work. We sink into leather couches, we order drinks, and we pull out our books. There’s chatter about who’s reading what, author recommendations mix with gossip, and a few books swap hands. The drinks arrive, a cheese plate appears, and the books-and-wine tableau is snapped, filtered, and hashtagged. As conversation dies down, we put our phones away and begin to read. It’s a Monday evening, so the bar is quiet. A classically trained pianist drifts from Bach to Adele without rustling a page of sheet music. We order more drinks. A few latecomers trickle in and are greeted warmly. We turn back to our books, and read.
Silent Book Club was born in a small French bistro in San Francisco. It was 2012 and I had a 2-year-old. He was a terrible sleeper, and I was way off my reading game. I had been an avid reader all my life, and although I was surrounded by books all day at my full-time publishing job, I couldn’t get through two pages when I collapsed into bed at the end of each day. The stack of books on my nightstand collected dust and water stains from leaky sippy cups.
The bistro was on the corner, a few doors down from my apartment. The owner was a Frenchman named Jacques who lived above the restaurant and knew all the neighbors by name. It was a warm and welcoming spot, and you’d be greeted by European kisses and a Bonsoir! when you walked through the door. I used the bistro as an escape from motherhood. I would sit alone at the bar with a book and a glass of wine while my husband led the dinner-bath-books-bedtime drill at home. It was the only undisturbed reading time I could find.
My friend Laura and I lived a few blocks apart with the bistro in between. One evening we met for a drink, and the topic turned to book clubs. I lamented that it always felt like a scramble to finish the assigned book on time, and then there was the added pressure of feeling like you had to have something insightful to add to the discussion. And who had time to bake, or worse, ready the house for guests if—god forbid—you were hosting that month? Besides, weren’t most of us really just there to drink wine with friends? I wanted to be in a book club where you could just show up at a bar with whatever book you wanted to read and not have to say anything. A silent book club.
For the next few years, we hosted sporadic Silent Book Club meetups with friends at local wine bars. When our friend Kristin moved back east, she brought Silent Book Club with her and created a Brooklyn chapter. Meanwhile, the idea was catching on. In 2014, the Wall Street Journal published an article on the benefits of slow reading. Studies had shown that 30 minutes of uninterrupted reading slowed memory loss and reduced stress. In our frazzled world of endless media consumption, it was getting harder and harder to turn off our devices and concentrate. Ebooks were great for the convenience of carrying a library in your pocket, but the constant pings from social media were the digital equivalent of a 2-year-old yelling MOMMY! MOMMY! as you desperately tried to get through the chapter.
Silent reading parties began cropping up around the world, from Seattle to London to New Zealand. In 2015, my co-founders Laura Gluhanich and Kristin Appenbrink and I launched our website silentbook.club and began hosting monthly meetups in San Francisco and Brooklyn. We formed a Facebook Group to connect readers around the globe and launched a newsletter to share event invites, book reviews, and giveaways.
We started Silent Book Club because reading with friends is fun—and it’s good for you. Scientists are realizing that as we spend more time online, it’s critical to be more social. Real, live, breathing-the-same-air social, not hearting-you-on-Instagram social. Loneliness puts you at a higher risk of death. I’m no doctor, but the evidence seems pretty clear that joining Silent Book Club will save your life.
While other silent reading parties have strict rules about No Talking!, no one is shushed in Silent Book Club. We love hearing about what people are reading (often in their other book clubs), and I have always found that the best book recommendations come from likeminded friends. Goodreads is great for tracking your TBR list, but I find it surprisingly difficult to isolate what my trusted friends are currently reading and loving. I have a wicked book-buying habit, so each month before Silent Book Club, I’ll post a list of books I want to read to see if anyone has a copy I can borrow. The book swap has saved my wallet many times.
The goal of Silent Book Club has always been to build a community of readers online and off. We currently host official meetups on the last Monday of the month in San Francisco and Brooklyn, and this month we will be expanding to Vancouver and Los Angeles. Everyone is welcome, and anyone can host. We encourage people all over the world to start their own Silent Book Clubs. Just find a well-lit bar, bring a book, and invite a friend or two. If you want to create an official chapter in your town, we can help you organize and promote it. Just drop us a line.
Join us! It’s easy. Just read, wine, repeat.
This article first appeared in May 2016 on Read it Forward, an online literary magazine that shuttered in 2021.