At the start of lockdown (which could be years ago at this point), all we wanted to do was to forget reality for a bit and escape into a really good book. But, despite all of our best intentions, with pubs reopening and endless beaches to plonk ourselves on each weekend, our to-read list has started to pile up once again.
“There’s a Japanese word for this,” Ben Keene, co-founder of Rebel Book Club tells me. “It’s tsundoku, which quite literally means the growing pile of books on your bedside table that remain unread.”
It was on a trip to Bali in 2015 with his pal and now Rebel Book Club co-founder, Ben Saul-Garner, that the pair realised they were both “suffering from a great affliction of tsundoku”, so they decided to do something about it.
Five years later, Rebel Book Club has over 1,000 active global members, 10,000 loyal followers on Instagram (@rebelbookclub) and, pre-pandemic, its London events were becoming so popular that police asked the members waiting outside if there was a new nightclub opening.
While these meetings have temporarily relocated to Zoom, Keene, who went full-time with the club at the end of last year, hopes to pick up the in-person meets again in the autumn. “We have small groups in Berlin and Barcelona who are already meeting up socially,” Keene offers. “One of the upsides of lockdown is that we’ve had people joining us from different parts of the world. Someone messaged me and said, ‘Hey, Ben, I’m joining you from the island of Guam in the South Pacific, it’s four in the morning’.”
Keene has seen an uptick in people reading since lockdown began and the original appetite people had for fiction, as a form of escapism, has transpired now into nonfiction, as a form of activism. Rebel Book Club is strictly nonfiction, which is something Keene and Saul-Garner decided to do from the off as “it’s a genre people need more help with”. They recently read Stormzy’s Rise Up and, while they couldn’t get the artist himself to speak at their digital meet-up (“I think we’re about two years too late,” Keene laughs), they did call in Dr. Monique Charles who wrote her thesis on grime culture. “This is the thing I love about what we do, you’d never think that you’re going to be chatting with or listening to a professor of grime talk about the history of this culture of Britain, and that’s really cool.”
The way Rebel Book Club works is each month it will have a different theme and Keene and his team will shortlist three books that fall under this before the members vote to decide which book will be read that month. Stormzy’s book fell under the Icon umbrella, and other themes the group has looked at this year include Stories of Resilience and Gender Bias. When the Black Lives Matter movement resurfaced in the spring, Keene says the group revisited conversations it had when it read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s powerful novel, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, back in 2018. “It was interesting for us to reflect on what we took on board when we read that book,” Keene says. “You know, when we start to explore white privilege, and hear each other’s stories around race and identity. It was interesting to dive back into that.”
The coming months will see the group explore the themes of Whistleblowers, the Female Body, Survival and looking at what it’s like to live in a world filled with digital clutter.
Personally, Keene, who says he reads one fiction book for every five nonfiction books, has relished Bernadine Evaristo’s Booker-winning Girl, Woman, Other. “I love the flow of the story, the journaling and the powerful characterisation. I also love that it makes you feel a bit closer to someone’s life that’s so very different to yours.” He also recommends Humankind by Rutger Bregman for science-backed journalism that proves humans are okay. “If you need some hope, with some evidence behind it, that would be my recommendation.” Fiction or nonfiction, hopeful prose is exactly what we need.
Rebel Book Club is part of a Facebook’s Community Accelerator programme, which provides training, mentorship and funding to help community leaders on the platform grow their communities.
To find out more about Rebel Book Club, visit rebelbook.club