Penn Reads, a new student-run book club, was launched this semester by five first years who had previously never met. Now, they're building a community through a mutual love of books.
After choosing a book to read together, the club meets virtually every Thursday for a discussion that may include politics, personal experiences, and other topics the books may inspire. With 21 official members aside from the five founders, the club welcomes any student with a passion for reading.
“It’s just a place for us to share our love of books and make new friends,” Engineering first year and Penn Reads co-founder Annika Eisner said.
The foundation for Penn Reads was laid this summer as the co-founders connected through group chats. When College first year Kai Kelly finished reading A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas in May, she wanted to share her enthusiasm about the novel with her fellow classmates. After reaching out in large GroupMe chats, Kelly found four other students who were interested in talking about books together.
The five students started holding regular meetings, but they soon realized that they wanted to open the conversation up and make it an official club for any student to join.
They searched for an existing book club at Penn to no avail. College sophomore Katrin Gross, a member of Penn Reads, added that she could not find a book club during her first year either.
Penn Reads has been an important bonding experience for the co-founders, particularly since students were not invited to return to campus this semester to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
College first year and Penn Reads co-founder Lucas Schrier said that the leaders have gotten to know each other by meeting to plan activities and events for the club, such as an upcoming movie night.
The founders said that it has been hard to meet other students remotely. Some tried joining other Zoom events to meet their peers but found it difficult to make connections in such large video calls. The more intimate setting of Penn Reads gave students a way to bond, College first year and co-founder Wendi Song said.
College first year Richa Patel joined the group in hopes of meeting fellow students before coming to campus. Patel heard about the group over the Class of 2024 GroupMe chat, and she said she had always wanted to join a book club.
“It’s such a nice community, everybody is so friendly,” said Patel.
The book discussions often cover current social issues and politics. Although members said they often agree on political issues, some participants added that they are able to learn from one another's personal experiences.
"There’s a lot of insights that other people in the club have that I don’t," Patel said.
The club's current novel for discussion, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, has sparked Penn Reads conversations on race and identity. The novel follows the lives of Black twin sisters who live their adult lives separately; one lives in her predominantly Black hometown while the other lives passing as a white woman. Kelly said the members also discussed their own personal connections to colorism.
The group previously discussed Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, a novel set during World War II, which prompted a discussion about anti-Semitism.
The members said the group discussions are loosely structured to encourage free discussion, citing one meeting that began at 8 p.m. and lasted until 2 a.m. as the participants went off on tangents, talking about their favorite childhood books.
Some members noted that Penn Reads has helped them become more engaged readers. Schrier said that coming together to talk and think about a book helps the group members refine their own thoughts and interpretations of the book.
When Penn invites students to return to campus, the club plans to continue meeting.
“We’re excited for everything the future holds for this club,” Kelly said.