Capturing the “Virtual Text” of Book Groups

Academic studies of book groups have noted the “virtual text” created over time in the process of a book’s discussion. In the useful account of Elizabeth Long (2003), the virtual text of a reading group is that evolving and largely ambient set of aesthetic claims, wishes for and production of additional tools (maps, historical footnotes, illustrations, fanfic spinoffs, lists, etc.), and social bonds of elective affinity that make reading — despite its solitary default — a social phenomenon, particularly outside of academia.

By drawing on actual circulation and social media records from Chicago Public Library about the repeating One Book One Chicago program, we intend that our study might capture some of that ambient commentary and tie it to actual, anonymized, demographic information. This would address a major problem Long identified in her case study: for the most part, “reading groups are almost inaccessible to the outside investigator, except through informal networks or through voluntary responses to more formal methods of research. This means that demographic knowledge–about how many reading groups there are even in this one city [Houston, TX] and who, exactly, comprise their population–is unavoidably more shaky than it is for more formally organized and more public associations” (xii). While many face to face live events have been scattered to the winds without record, in the case of One Book One Chicago there is a large, and growing, archive of documents related to sustained elective reading in one city — an archive including recordings, print media, tweets, posts, likes, and reviews.


Long, Elizabeth. Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

Joseph M. Reagle, Jr. Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015).    

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