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Join an Online Book Group That Caters to Your Interests and Jump Right In

July 30, 1998|MARK GLASER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joining a book group has probably been on your to-do list for some time. Rather than keep putting it off, you might want to check out the variety of groups online, covering a range of topics and letting you discuss books with like-minded readers. There are groups devoted to women's issues, science fiction, gay and lesbian themes, philosophy and, of course, Oprah's picks.

Many of the bigger sites cover more mainstream titles and provide links to online bookstores so you can order them easily. You'll have to register with most sites, giving your name and e-mail address and choosing an online handle and password to enter chat areas. But don't worry about joining a discussion late; most moderators will welcome you and give you the ground rules.

The best places to start your search are Rachel's Compendium of Online Book Discussions (http://www.his.com/ ~allegria/clubs.html) and the BookWire's Reading Groups index (http://www.bookwire.com/index/reading-groups.html). The former, run by Rachel Jaffe, has a nicely pared-down list of Web-based groups, e-mail-oriented clubs and real-time chat rooms. Jaffe ran a group herself, and knowingly warns: "Without participation, even the best-intentioned book club will be forced to close." The BookWire index is a bit more diverse, but includes many defunct sites.

Nothing's worse than a book group that has no one there. For the most populated (and animated) discussions, go to Utne Reader's Cafe Utne (http://www.utne.com/cafe/index.html) or Salon magazine's Table Talk (http://tabletalk.salonmagazine.com). Cafe Utne has had online book discussions since 1996, and just wrapped up covering Dostoevsky's "Notes From the Underground." The message boards are a bit complex, and the intellectual level is quite high, but new members are gladly received.

Like Utne Cafe, Salon runs its Web discussion boards in a freewheeling manner, letting people post comments at their convenience. Unfortunately its Classic Book Group, which had contemporary authors discussing classic works (such as Joyce Carol Oates on "Jane Eyre") has lapsed, though you can read archives. If you delve into the "Books" section of Table Talk, however, you'll find lively discussions titled "Who or What Killed the New Yorker?" and "John Irving: Genius or Self-Indulgent Hack?" The "TT Reading Group" selection for August is "The Big Sleep" by Raymond Chandler.

The Washington Post's Online Book Club (go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/talk/front.htm, register, and go to "Books and More") is a little less uptight, with chapters assigned week by week, but people jump in randomly without difficulty.

If you're more comfortable with e-mail, you might want to check out Bookies (http://www.alaweb.com/ ~nhallo/Readers_Group/index.htm), run by Nancy Hudson through an e-mail list. The group doesn't always stay on topic and isn't for the most serious literary lights.

For the do-it-yourself book group leader, there are plenty of resources online, with nice reader guides at Random House (http://www.randomhouse.com/library/rgg.html) and Simon & Schuster (http://www.simonsays.com/reading/guides/) sites.

Mark Glaser is a freelance writer and critic. You can reach him at glaze@sprintmail.com.

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