Have you heard? Mark Zuckerberg wants to start a book club. As one of his New Year’s Resolutions for 2015, the 30-year-old CEO of Facebook will commit to reading one new book every two weeks. He has already set up a Facebook page “The Year of the Book” and invited Facebook’s 864 million members to join in the fun by leaving comments relevant to the book at hand. As of this writing, the page has some 241,000 likes.
So far at least – and in marked contrast to Facebook users – the reaction to this announcement within the cultural commentariat has been largely negative. Criticisms seem to come mostly in the form of: The nerve of that young upstart! Who does he think he is…Oprah? The argument here is that Mark Zuckerberg cannot pretend – nor should he pretend – to be a tastemaker like Oprah Winfrey, who re-ignited reading within her (largely) middle-aged female audience by closely aligning her book club selections with the highly personal, emotionally resonant material covered on her talk show. As Gawker’s Anna Wiener puts it: “Oprah’s best product has always been Oprah. Zuckerberg’s best product is Facebook.”
Sure, and point well taken. He’s a geek and Oprah’s a Goddess. But is Mark Zuckerberg really trying to reorient our tastes and/or marry them to a brand? Or are his motivations – dare I suggest – much more straightforward and – gasp – precisely what he says they are? When launching the new page, Zuckerberg stated that he finds reading to be “very intellectually fulfilling. Books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today.” It’s tempting to find this sort of statement banal-verging-on-ludicrous. But having had my fair share of engineering friends over the years, many of whom came to serious reading bit later on in life than the rest of us wannabe Walter Benjamins, I actually think that maybe he’s being sincere.
Which brings us to a further criticism of the new book club – which I find even less convincing. Writing in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, James Walton writes that because Zuckerberg has explicitly set out to explore books that aim to explore different “cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies,” he is somehow forcing us to think of reading as “useful,” thereby perverting the purer – and presumably more elevated – hobby of reading fiction. Personally, I probably read about one piece of non-fiction for every ten novels I pick up. But since when does reading non-fiction count as a “chore,” as Walton suggests? Given the choice, any number of my close friends – including my husband – will routinely opt for something like Stephen Greenblatt’s riveting revisionist history of the Renaissance – The Swerve – over a classic like Middlemarch. Does that make them crass, utilitarian wonks or just a bunch of people who prefer to spend their free time pondering why the world works the way it does through analysis, rather than through plot and character?
So although “Zuck” is probably the last person in the world who needs another virtual friend, I’d like to step forward and suggest three reasons why his virtual book club is a good idea:
1. It’s great for books. First, and as others have pointed out, as soon as Zuckerberg made his first book pick – Moisés Naím’s The End of Power, book sales for this heretofore rather niche policy analysis about the future of governance skyrocketed. For those of us who believe that all things equal, more reading is better than less reading, and that anything that helps shore up books – and bookstores – is a positive, I say Hooray!
2. It’s great for Mark Zuckerberg. Remember when Mark Zuckerberg was roundly decried for not paying sufficient attention to the world and specifically, for not donating some of his billions to a worthy cause? Much of that image changed when he turned around and gave $100 million to Newark’s public schools. While creating an online book group does not exactly count as philanthropy, given who he is – and the platform he commands – Zuckerberg is showing that he is taking his role as Global Citizen seriously. Particularly in a week when we all struggle to make sense of and recover from the terrorist attacks in Paris, I think you can make a case that creating a very public, well-trafficked forum for exploring different beliefs and cultures is itself a form of public good.
3. It’s great for millennials. Finally, with his new Facebook page, Zuckerberg is also popularizing an institution – the book club – that deserves to find new audiences and new permutations in the 21st century. I’ve long been a huge believer in book clubs: they’re fun, they take you outside of your (intellectual) comfort zone, they force you to think about even familiar books in a new way. But their reputation, anyway, is as the exclusive cultural preserve of well-educated, middle class ladies such as myself, sipping Chardonnay on sofas as they drone on about the joys of Ian McEwan. Despite all the hype to the contrary, millennials in America do read actual books, even more so than older Americans. But what young people also do – in droves – is spend a heckuva lot of time Online. So Zuckerberg is actually adapting the fantastic cultural form that is the book group to the social habits of the only ones who can continue to take reading seriously in the future.
Only time will tell if he will succeed in the task he has set for himself and whether The Year of The Book will really work. But I give him an A for Effort.
And who knows, maybe next year he’ll tackle women’s literature?
Delia Lloyd is an American writer based in London. She blogs about adulthood at realdelia.com.