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Millions Of Book Club Readers, 140 Characters

Apr 29, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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Book clubs have been online for years, and usually they're nice, structured discussions on blogs or message boards, where fiction hounds can leave thoughtful comments. So, how about a nice, deep conversation about Catcher in the Rye in 140 characters?

That's exactly the kind of discussion Jeff Howe, a contributing editor at Wired magazine, is proposing. He's calling it One Book, One Twitter. The inspiration for the project, he says, was One Book, One Chicago, a program that started back in 2001 when the entire city was asked to read To Kill a Mockingbird. Howe says he loved the way it brought people together.

"You had elementary school kids reading it, and their parents reading it, and their grandparents reading it," he says. And readers spanned all races and social classes. Howe says you had "black people reading it, Hispanic people reading it, and white people, and rich and poor. And it gave all these people with very little in common at least one thing in common."

Since To Kill a Mockingbird, Chicago has read 18 more books, and other cities have done the same thing with great success. Now Howe wants to bring the idea to Twitter, where, he points out, the diversity will be international.

"You know, we can't make the Sunni love Shia. We can't turn red states and blue states into the United States," he says. But "what we can do is all read the same book together and get to know one another a little bit."

Howe wrote about his idea in an article in Wired; he says he knows he's got thousands of people onboard.

Andrea Grover, an independent curator and writer who lives in Houston, is going to be one of those readers, and she says it reminds her of a positive experience she had collaborating with artists on the photo-sharing service Flickr.

"What came out of that is I now have friends in Pakistan and Iran, and have meaningful relationships that developed off-line," Grover says. "Twitter might just be the gateway to something deeper."

You might wonder how deep it can get; Twitter posts have a 140-character limit. But Howe thinks there is depth to be found if you look at each comment on the service like a haiku.

"I'm a big defender of Twitter as having given rights to a renaissance of the epigrammatic form, and so I think it's possible [to be] insightful in 140 characters," Howe says.

Susan Van Kirk is an expert at condensing literary greatness into a few words — she wrote the Cliffs Notes for The Scarlet Letter. She gave us her 140-character, Twitter-acceptable version.

"Sin is bad.Confession good.Courageous Hester wears and lives.Cowardly Dimmsdale won't & dies.Puritans satisfied.H&D together in death."

That's hardly deep stuff, Van Kirk admits. The Cliffs Notes might make it easier for tired students, but Van Kirk says "it's very difficult to condense ... It's really tough to do that in 70 pages, let alone 140 characters."

The finalists for the One Book, One Twitter read included Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things — hardly shallow stuff. The winner, announced via Howe's Twitter feed and on his blog on April 29, was Neil Gaiman's science fiction novel American Gods.

Bill Drew, who voted for Gaiman's book, admits he's not sure he'll be able to say much in 140 characters. But he said he might attempt to use the small space to entice people to go further.

"You can start out with something that's gonna grab 'em and have a link that points to more," Drew says.

Organizer Jeff Howe says he plans to ask everyone to read a chapter a week. He hopes it feels a little like being at a big party.

"This is a big room with a lot of people who are all reading the same chapter, and they're very excited, and they're speaking in short incisive bursts."

Well, let's hope so. Conversation is taking place at #1b1t on Twitter. Updates are available at @crowdsourcing — Howe's Twitter feed.

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