Book Feels For Broke Bibliophiles: Exploring Bookishness in New Media

On the social media behemoth Facebook exists a group known as ‘Book Deals for Broke Bibliophiles‘ — a vibrant online community of self-identified book-lovers who spend as much time on this forum discussing and discovering new books, favorite authors, short stories, book-photography and other bookish things as they do reading, presumably.

As per the description given — and as indicated by the name —“This Group is intended to suggest curated online book deals in India. The objective is to make you spend bare minimum to buy your favourite books.”

It was started in December 2014 by a person who prefers to keep their identity anonymous, originally going by the name “Broke Bibliophile.” A fascinating figure, this person is charismatic, polite, responsive to other members and always, always exercises a firm control of the group. In fact, I have seldom seen a group on Facebook that is so entwined with the identity of its administrator. No one else is allowed to post on this group, although several discussion threads are open where other members might comment. Owing to a change in Facebook regulatory policies at some point, ‘Broke Bibliophile’ was forced to reveal their true identity. Out of respect for their desire for privacy, group members still refer to this administrator affectionately as “Broke.”

(Photo: Facebook Screenshot)

The majority of posts are links to online deals and discounts that ‘Broke’ encounters while browsing e-commerce websites for books and shares with other readers for their convenience. The accessibility and ease this sharing brings is apparent in the many comments expressing gratitude, excitement at particularly good deals, and a comical bemoaning of the lack of cash caused by these tempting offers.

The group exists on platforms across new media — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, a spin-off group for Kindle deals — as well as an app for mobile devices called “Book Thief.” All of these update their followers of book deals. But while this group may have started as a place to share these discounts, it is evolving into something more complex and far-reaching.

Over time, the space has become a forum for all manner of discussion threads, group activities, book-themed contests, and group-reading marathons (affectionately called read-a-thons by the members). Posts also flit across mediums- with comic strips, poems and inspirational quotes peppering the group’s timeline. There are often thematically relevant posts based on festivals or special days, as well as giveaways of special books. All of these are curated and suggested by ‘Broke’, and find an appreciative highly articulate audience, and enthusiastic participation.

(Photo: Facebook Screenshot)

In a remarkable demonstration of transparency, the administrator outlines through a long explanatory post how, with each purchase made on the links shared on this group, “Broke” recieves an affiliate comission from the website in question. It specifies that one does not have to make the purchase on the links enclosed, if one so chooses.  These commisions provide enough money to fulfill the running costs of the whole apparatus. In their own words,

“Why affiliate commission, some of you might ask. Just another incentive to keep me going and dissuade me from doing those crappy time-return calculations whenever I feel guilty about spending too much time on the group. I invest most of whatever little I get into FB ads, App, Server costs etc. The commission hasn’t made me rich, but after FB Ad costs etc, I have saved for buying 4-5 box sets in one year! Thanks to you all for the same.:)”

This brings me to an ambivalence I have felt consistently over years of following this group- a cause for unease that “Book Deals for Broke Bibliophiles” as a collective evokes in me personally. The group’s approach towards consuming books is with a strong focus on online shopping, and what it perpetuates — convenience, efficiency, home delivery.

Ownership of new books, especially if they are cheaper, would certainly be cause for deepest delight. But in terms of accessibility and “brokeness”, there seems to be a near-total erasure of libraries and bookshops (especially second-hand bookshops) as viable options on this group. I cannot help but wonder why, especially when so much else — not directly linked to the raison d’etre of ownership and acquisition of books — populates the page.

(Photo: Facebook Screenshot)

What this slant does is to make irrelevant the materiality of buying books in person. It completely obscures the possibility of borrowing books — which would perhaps be one of the most economical approaches to reading further.

The act of hunting through stacks of second-hand books littered across pavements, not knowing what they might contain; the flowing conversation with a well-read bookshop owner or librarian that leads you off-track towards a book that will transform you; straying towards a battered copy of an old favourite author in the same shelf as the book you want, browsing, lingering. None of these can exist in the version where the books are pre-decided, ordered and delievered in three working days.

The transactional quality of attaining these books overpowers the hunt, the search, the physical conversation. It isolates you, the reader, physically so where does that leave you when you are bursting with what was read? Back online, hungry for further talk. So a continuous feedback loop runs — takes the book-loving and feeds it straight back into these online communities.

And maybe this is the only version of readerly togetherness that can adapt itself to the future. Today’s social media is rife with signs of political instability, questionable media coverage, murders, assaults and a stark rise in hate speech and rhetoric. Why shouldn’t a group elect, instead, to discuss their favorite science fiction authors, or the latest short story, or the latest Booker-prize winning novel? And if much of these discussions are polite, positive and demonstrative of mutual respect between participants, then better still.

At its best, the group represents community. There has been much panic and discussion in readerly circles around the idea that reading is dead. That physical books are almost extinct. Worse, that social media is the primary cause of their death. “Book Deals for Bibliophiles” indicates otherwise. The liveliness of the group and its swelling numbers (nearing thirty thousand members) suggests almost a counter-claim. The readers have heard, banded together and claimed a part of the very virtual world that apparently threatens their existence. “No, we are not readers in isolation” it seems to say, “but reading together, thousands of us —reading, talking, asking each other for recommendations…online!”

(Photo: Facebook Screenshot)

For me, perhaps the most interesting evolution this group has undergone took place about a year ago. A simple thought really — why didn’t all these members consider meeting in real life and have book meet-ups? The idea was initiated by “Broke” but was picked up with great enthusiasm by other members. Very soon various cities — Pune, Bangalore, Chennai, Calcutta and Delhi — had intiated their own Brok Bibliophile meet-ups. In conversation with Pragya Mishra — founder and administrator of the Delhi chapter of Broke Bibliophiles — I learn that city chapters have their own vibrant Facebook groups that are still loosely associated with the larger group. They meet up once a month, and may have thematic readings, or discuss a book decided by popular vote. They have even had book swaps and book auctions. Apparently, after the initial few months of guidance and logistical help, “Broke” has gently withdrawn from these city-chapters, making them virtually autonomous collectives.

What is fascinating to me about this group (or this group of groups) is that it is growing, adapting, using new media to flow in and out of physical space. That it is contemporary, vital, internet savvy,  almost cult-like, and vociferously in support of reading as a way of life. A part of me wonders how much of this translates to actually reading — the regretful part that is reading less and less books, the more time I spend online.

But ultimately, and as with all things social media — the existence of representation is almost as important as what is represented. The group may not attract all types of readers, but it features enough of them to show- to anyone who might be looking- that readers, books and bookish love in the digital age abides.

One thought on “Book Feels For Broke Bibliophiles: Exploring Bookishness in New Media

  1. Thanks for a wonderful piece.

    Love begets love, goodness breeds goodness. This group and its various city chapters are living, breathing examples of how the world is full of good people. Being a member of the group and some of the city chapters, I vouch for the way these are spreading love for books amongst people of all generations. I credit the group for helping me overcome a debilitating reader’s block. I’ve never seen people being ridiculed for their reading habits. The members are ever-ready with positive words; they help other bibliophiles discover new genres, new writers.
    As for it not helping the real-world booksellers, that’s not correct actually. The main group posts about deals and sales; the city chapters encourages and indulges in walks through the streets lined with bookshops selling books at dirt-cheap prices.

    Best wishes.

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