Between the Book Club and BookTok: Community Reading in Montreal

Between the Book Club and BookTok: Community Reading in Montreal

Every Wednesday at seven o’clock, Montrealers gather at De Stiil bookstore for an hour of silent reading: alone in their choice of book, but nonetheless together. Before reading begins, an exchange takes place at the store’s counter: cell phones are handed in for a glass of white wine or seltzer. Disconnection and a muted sense of indulgence underpin the ritual of Page Break, as this weekly occurrence is known. Having taken up a volume from the store’s shelves—without compulsion to buy—or from home, readers sit on gray cushions or minimalist wooden chairs arranged around the open-plan store. Attendance is dominated by graduate students and young professionals in their mid-to-late twenties or early thirties, and proceedings are infused with the hushed reverence that you’d expect at other solidly millennial group activities such as a yoga or pottery class. Picture guided meditation in a studio all exposed brick and monstera plants, and then add a generous helping of high cultural gravitas.

Part of Page Break’s appeal—suggests the bookstore’s owner, Aude Le Dubé—lies in rekindling memories of silent reading in kindergarten. The end of the hour is announced softly, attendees stir back to life, unfolding themselves and taking their last sips of wine. Afterwards, attendees linger on to chat, and perhaps buy a book they might have started. But then all file out onto the streets of Montreal’s Plateau district.

Dogs are welcome additions at Page Break and initially its studied quietness was punctuated only by the determined gnawing of one regular canine attendee, given a bone that prevented any more intrusive noises. But as Page Break’s popularity grew among a younger generation, particularly on and through social media, it experienced more existential forms of disturbance. These have much to reveal about broad generational differences in forms of literary community.

Page Break emerged in the early autumn of 2021, when Quebec’s COVID measures were on the wane but mask wearing at public events was still mandated. De Stiil borrowed the concept from a similar event in Norwich, UK, which was more irreverently titled Page Against the Machine. The store, a stalwart of the city’s Anglophone literary scene, sought to revitalize an in-person sense of literary community. In the context of the strained language politics of the city, Le Dubé also asserts that the encouragement for readers to bring along French-language books was intended to push back on the perceived insularity of this scene.

Beyond the possibility of post-pandemic community, Page Break also offers an alternative to the traditional book club, for all those who not-so-secretly feel turned off by them as hierarchical, prescriptive, and anxiety inducing. Such concerns could be abandoned at Page Break, without forfeiting the desired sense of community or the motivating pressure to read. Attendees could read whatever they wanted—high-, middle-, whatever-brow, or just their graduate seminar reading from that week—and at no point feel compelled to one-up one another with dazzlingly insightful remarks on a book that had been foisted onto them.

Although there would be no obligation to discuss the same book, the signaling and exchange of cultural capital is, nonetheless, an inevitable part of Page Break. As participants arrive and mingle, this exchange is transferred to the optics of the front covers that begin to appear from bags and a reader’s rapid gloss on their chosen title. Small talk, inevitably focused on books, sees readers position books and books position readers in the contemporary literary marketplace. That the private act of reading might be made public in this way means that Page Break’s formula actualizes the book-as-social-prop as it appears on social media platforms. The literary subsections of Instagram and TikTok—known as Bookstagram and BookTok, respectively—see content creators review new releases while holding the title in question or with its front cover superimposed on their videos.

In 2022, one such content creator on TikTok—a local “BookToker”—offered to leverage his 15,000 followers to promote various aspects of De Stiil. Previously, the store made some use of Instagram to publicize their events, including Page Break, but otherwise kept a low profile online. The space is, however, well primed for digital mediation, deploying a glossy literary aesthetic that has become familiar on Instagram. Books are arranged sparsely on expansive tables as well as shelves and, in the window next to leafy plants, a fashion-forward typewriter invites customers to leave messages.

Page Break offers an alternative to the traditional book club, for all those who not-so-secretly feel turned off by them as hierarchical, prescriptive, and anxiety inducing.

Such aesthetics no doubt catalyzed the rapid effect of TikTok promotion: a younger, more-very-online readership was swiftly attracted to the store. These readers, mostly undergraduates in their very late teens or early twenties, came looking for specific titles more often associated with a middle-aged book club, such as Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet or Madeleine Miller’s Circe. Sales of such books climbed rapidly and the store became fast acquainted with the inclinations of a Gen Z readership in a way it had not been before. Le Dubé notes that many of the store’s new, younger visitors were explicit about the desire for writing that could produce strong affective responses, fostering a feeling of connection to thousands of others recounting such responses online. The store came under pressure to stock the trauma-plotted and darkly academic, such as Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a copy or two of which it might have shelved in a discreet corner previously. Le Dubé set up a BookTok table, on which viral titles were mixed in with the De Stiil’s own recommendations. If selling A Little Life in particular to Gen Z readers and those even younger began to trouble Le Dubé, offering overly didactic warnings also felt ethically fraught. Despite the clear commercial incentives, the BookTok table was decommissioned, the promotional videos were discontinued, and the interest generated via TikTok died down after a couple of months.

Then, later that year, Page Break specifically underwent a similar upwell of social media fame, though this time without invitation. Another local TikToker featured the reading event on a listicle video showcasing the best free things to do in Montreal—presumably having broken a cardinal Page Break rule and held onto her phone. The impact of sudden virality as a result of this video was more immediate and proved more difficult to contain. A similarly younger, more digitally minded demographic descended on Page Break itself and their approach to proceedings was markedly different to that of the predominantly millennial set of regulars.

Page Break’s newfound social media fame registered it now as first and foremost a social event, less a hallowed opportunity to return to the lost art of uninterrupted reading alongside a few familiar faces. The new, younger attendees came in bigger groups than readers had previously and were more likely to challenge the basic tenets of Page Break, asking after alternative wines and the availability of food, taking selfies. Demand skyrocketed. As people queued out the door each Wednesday, regulars had to be turned away. A mother and daughter risked disappointment and drove across Quebec and back, and on one memorable occasion disappointed readers sat in groups on the sidewalk—the public reading event became, briefly, yet more public.

To manage soaring demand, the store initiated an online reservation system. This didn’t solve the problem, however, if a problem it was, of too much interest. Instead, the store began asking for a five-dollar participation fee. There were some complaints, and the move went against Le Dubé’s socialist bent, but overall, Page Break’s regulars were happy to pay, seeing it as a chance to acknowledge the significance of the store. Attendance stabilized, with some newer Gen-Z readers staying on and space enough for committed canines.

That the requested donation turned away some previous attendees had some positive repercussions, however. Now, a collection of grassroots Page Break events are faithfully replicated in private homes. A splinter group was set up in Ottawa and a Montreal group continues to meet weekly after a year and a half. A core set of Page Break alumni have been joined by a significant number of newcomers. When these members hear about the concept, their reaction is invariably surprise turning to curiosity. An hour of silent reading together becomes a low-stakes opportunity to meet new people, to cultivate and share an identity as a “reader,” and to maintain a regular reading habit for former students in particular. Arguably, these grassroots Page Breaks result in a firmer sense of community. Everyone arrives knowing at least one other person, and post-reading discussion, whether or not this centers on the books read, is not curtailed by closing time.

The interest in these groups accentuates the space within the contemporary field of literary reception that De Stiil sought to carve out in the first place with Page Break. Such forms of community reading push against the strictures of the book club and of the pursuit of viral BookTok titles simultaneously. They place emphasis on freedom of choice: on reading both beyond the obligation of a monthly pick and beyond the literary trends of the moment.

The store continues to strike a delicate balance between the individualistic—the freedom to read and advertise your choice of book—and the collectivist—the pleasures and pressures of joint activity overlayed onto the lonely act of reading. Among late twentysomething and early thirtysomething literary types in Montreal, such a balance proves a winning formula. icon

This article was commissioned by Abigail Struhl.

Featured image: Photograph of De Stiil Books in Montreal courtesy Adam Christopher Hill.

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