A year and a half of physical (social) distancing across the globe also saw, as a consequence, a paradigm shift in how we learn, work, socialize, and entertain ourselves. For us, at the Ardent Reader’s Collective, starting a virtual book club in June 2020 meant checking all four of those boxes.

The ARC began as an opportunity to broaden our reading horizons and socialize (safely, amid myriad public health protocols and phases of lockdowns). We began as 3 bookworms with a diverse taste in books looking to find kindred souls and ardent readers who love to passionately chat about the story and the storytelling – and everything in between. There’s so much more to reading a piece of literature than traversing the written word from the front cover to the back. We read to comprehend, explore, or discover, to understand, and perhaps most significantly to empathize.

In the 15 months since setting up our little niche in the great wide web, we’ve read and discussed 30 or more books; from age-old classics to contemporary novels, spanning cultures worldwide with postcolonial literature as well as writing translated to English; and we continue to explore. The discussions we have within our small reading group cover the most trivial and mundane, as well as important conversations on gender, socio-cultural divides, marginalization, and inclusivity. And the best feedback we’ve received: the sense of community we’ve managed to create and the avenue to virtually meet both like-minded and different people and learn from each other.

Literacy and literature play a transformative role in shaping worldviews, connecting individuals, and bridging spatial and cultural divides through communication, understanding, and most significantly, inclusion. While the first is undoubtedly a vital skill to be developed, supported, and gauged as a parameter of human and social development, the latter is more than just a tool to aid this ability. Literature, in any language, has tremendous power to give voice and evoke empathy. It is then imperative that the standards we set to measure literacy be raised, and the course of action to achieve universal adult literacy and educate children be realigned and reinforced.

On this International Literacy Day, UNESCO emphasizes the importance of ‘Literacy for a human-centered recovery’ from the socio-economic crisis that is a by-product of the pandemic and our times. The socio-cultural implications of a pandemic that necessitates physical (and consequently a great deal of social) distancing have been the disconnect, isolation, and even an adverse risk of deteriorating mental health many have experienced to varying degrees. Add to this a disruption in learning opportunities and vocational skill-building, against a rising threat of unemployment.

Even as national and state policies responded in different capacities to the emerging needs in the sectors of education, health, and social protection, the loss of access to public spaces and a sense of community have undoubtedly been felt. The transition to virtual spaces was almost immediate – for those who could access it. Where the internet failed to connect people, other forms of telecommunication (local television and radio networks) sought to compensate. If these media could be harnessed to engage local communities and simultaneously promote skill-building and adult-learning opportunities, 773 million non-literate young people and adults could be served better.

So where do book clubs play a role? No doubt, the idea of a virtual book club can appear to be one steeped in some degree of privilege: accessibility of the internet, affordability of books, an existing level of reading (and writing) ability, and in the case of ARC, communicative skills specifically in English. However, book clubs have been utilized as a medium for promoting children’s literacy and learning and the same can be adapted for youth and adults, in any vernacular if taken up by CSOs and local governments. The shift from a didactic approach in adult education to a more collaborative Socratic one that stimulates continued readership, dialogue, and a curiosity to learn about the world beyond would enhance literacy and communicative skills and bring members (rather than students) together. Moreover, by optimizing the use of translations and the most accessible media to serve and interact with members creatively and virtually, such vernacular book clubs could just be narrowing the digital divide and simultaneously building social bridges in appreciating and understanding the Other (across genders and social divisions closer home or on the other side of the world).

Over on ARC, we’ve just spent the last Women in Translation Month (that was August), discovering and/or reading translated works by female authors from across the globe, with spillover effects into September. Do check out our little community’s page @ardentreaderscollective over on Instagram to see what we’ve been up to and if you’d consider joining us! Happy International Literacy Day – the fact that you can read and understand this, is one you just cannot take for granted.

Written By-

Tania Teresa Mathews

for The Ardent Reader’s Collective

She is one of the three founding members of the Ardent Reader’s Collective and a freelance illustrator and researcher. When she’s not writing about socio-economic and human development, she’s sketching up a storm and planning creative content for ARC. Find more of her work here: @thisisttm on Instagram

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