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Freewheeling Seoul book club spurs global insights, stories

Aug. 9, 2021 - 12:18 By Kim Hae-yeon
A screen capture from Itaewon Book Club’s online video meeting on Aug. 1 (Kim Hae-yeon/The Korea Herald)
In 2015, two bookworms from the US working as English language instructors in Korea, opened Itaewon Book Club in Seoul, hoping it would be a space to share their thoughts on their latest reads. Six years on, the book club is still going strong, with some 1,800 people from all over the world having trickled in and out over the years.

As the book club’s name says, the usual gathering spot before the pandemic had been at one of the well-known pubs in Itaewon, central Seoul. However, the strict social distancing guidelines in place required the club to move their meetings online. Despite the less-than-favorable conditions, a biweekly book club meeting on a recent Sunday that The Korea Herald attended had a pleasant ambience, with discussions oftentimes serious but still joyful and rich.

“The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” by Czech writer Milan Kundera was the book chosen for the first Sunday in August.

Ten minutes before the session officially began, members joined a private online video meeting room, where they greeted each other and shared light discussions on how they felt about the novel. A total of five members joined the two-hour session.

The readers discussed a wide range of topics related to the novel -- from guessing the author’s motivation for the book, to analyzing the plot. Some 40 minutes into the session, critiques of the characters’ personalities and emotions were enriched by the members’ own stories.

Members were keen to share their interpretations of the text, and there was no single uniform answer to any of the questions raised during the session.

The “what if” question stood out, prompting discussions on how the story could have unfolded if the stage had been set in other countries during the same era. Different cultures and historical contexts of the members’ home countries, as well as their experiences while living abroad, deepened the discussions. 

A screen capture of Itaewon Book Club’s page on the Meetup website (Meetup)
“I guess there is a reason why three coffee shops exist on every street corner, no matter which city you visit,” Christopher Jones, 43, the co-founder of Itaewon Book Club, said in a phone interview with The Korea Herald on the adventurous journey of hosting a book club in a foreign country. “People like to sit down, look someone in the eye, and share what they have seen, read, and experienced.”

The book club members come from countries across Africa, Europe, North America and Asia. Incorporating stories from their own lives with literature, and examining them from different angles, created treasured moments that Jones and his co-founder, Jonathan Baker, value most.

Jones chooses the books for the biweekly sessions and posts them on the Meetup board as well as the club members’ chat room.

“In the first year, members chose books of their own interests. But (sometimes) the person who chose them ended up quitting the club (before the session was held), and some books made others not interested,” Jones said.

To fit the original intention of the book club, the two co-founders decided that choosing books as the leader would be the best option.

Unlike most book clubs today that implement strict penalties for non-attendance, which often ends up excluding those who do not participate regularly enough, the Itaewon Book Club does not have policies or obligations to abide by.

“You can show up whenever, and talk about whatever at the club, as long as you follow our one and only rule: ‘Do not interrupt when someone else is talking,’” Jones said.

The co-founders learned the importance of the rule through years of experience managing the club. Heated arguments were inevitable every once in a while, but they came to realize that that single rule was what made members feel comfortable and respected throughout the session.

Itaewon Book Club has covered some 80 books so far, with most books demanding more than a single two-hour session, due to the works’ length and complexity.

“Our next goal is to expose ourselves in other media platforms, like podcasts for instance, to keep record of the sessions and bring more people into what we are doing,” Jones said, adding that anybody is welcome to join the book club, whether they are “hardcore serious readers,” or those who simply want to practice their English.