Late on a Sunday afternoon at Botanero, a restaurant in Rockville’s King Farm, about 20 people are reading silently—some on tablets, most with real books in their hands. Liza Achilles brought Case Study. Natasha Shangold is reading The Russian Word for Snow. Michael Ludwig is more than halfway through Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which is even sadder than he expected. Before the group started reading today, he joked, “I’’ll try not to cry.”
At Silent Book Club meetings, everybody gets to read whatever they want. They talk and eat, read, then talk and eat again. “I do not tend to do well in traditional book clubs because I don’t like having assigned reading,” says Achilles, 45, a writer and editor who leads the club’s Rockville chapter.“I always ended up dropping out sooner or later because I wanted to read other books.”
Founded in 2012 in San Francisco, the Silent Book Club started with a pair of friends, both introverted, who enjoyed reading together at their neighborhood bar. Friends saw their Instagram posts, and soon their party of two turned into six or 10. They started posting the time and place on Facebook, and the group kept growing—one event invite went viral and 90 people showed up. The founders came up with a slogan: Welcome to Introvert Happy Hour.
They wanted to eliminate the pressure they’d experienced in other book clubs, where they had to read a certain book and then come up with something to say. And someone had to host. “Sort of jokingly, we were saying we want to design a book club where there’s no homework and there’s no responsibility to have to set up or clean up,” says co-founder Guinevere de la Mare, 47, who has since moved from San Francisco to Hawaii. They also hoped to ease the anxiety for people who struggled with small talk, like they did. “What we really liked about the idea of showing up at a bar with a book in your hand is that it automatically gave you a conversation prompt.”
Now the Rockville chapter is one of 300-plus Silent Book Club chapters worldwide. Sessions run from 4 to 6 p.m., with a half hour of silent reading starting at 4:45 p.m. Every group does things differently, de la Mare says. Some meet in parks, others in libraries or cafes. A chapter popped up in Egypt late last year, another in Sweden this spring.
When Achilles saw Silent Book Club featured in Poets & Writers magazine, she remembers thinking, I have to be a part of this. A former high school English teacher, the Rockville resident organized the first meetup at Botanero in March 2017. “At that first meeting, reading silently among my new friends, I was in literal (and literary!) bliss,” she later wrote in a blog post.
Shangold, 31, who lives in Derwood, joined the club in the summer of 2022 when she was looking for a hobby and wanted to make some friends. “I go through periods of, ‘Let’s read a whole series of 10 books!’ and then I’m like, eh,” she says. “But I like this club because it’s like you can’t have that sabbatical. …Every two weeks you’re like, Oh, it’s book club—I have to find a book.”
At a recent meetup, Shangold sat with two women she didn’t know and ended up telling them why the book she was reading—a mother’s account of adopting her son from Russia—resonated the way it did. She’s on her own adoption journey, she explained, to track down three of her biological brothers. One of the women recommended Kindred, a novel by Octavia E. Butler, and Shangold put it on her reading list.
For Ludwig, 63, an information technology manager who lives alone in Germantown, being in the Silent Book Club has pushed him to start socializing again after the isolation of the pandemic. “This fills a need for me, and it’s helping me,” he says.
Not everyone gets it, though. “I have a friend who’s just as amused as can be about the whole format,” Ludwig says. “She just thinks it’s funny. I suppose it is.”
This story appears in the September/October issue of Bethesda Magazine.
If MoCo360 keeps you informed, connected and inspired, circle up and join our community by becoming a member today. Your membership supports our community journalism and unlocks special benefits.