Truly, madly, deeply into books

Hoda Marmar is the administrator of the popular bilingual "Bookoholics" group in Beirut, which recently celebrated its sixth anniversary and which has, in those six years, discussed 125 books in Arabic and English. By Marcia Lynx Qualey

By Marcia Lynx Qualey

Reading is often seen as a solo activity. But Bookoholics founder Hoda Marmar knows that to reach that private place with a book, a reader must be supported by a robust literary community. This community is made up not only of authors, editors, translators, designers, printers and publishers, but also of book-bloggers, book-tweeters, chatty librarians and fellow bibliophiles. Even for readers who are introverts, community is an essential part of the literary sports.

Yet book-group boosters and organisers remain an unsung part of literary landscape. Particularly when there is a lack of literary infrastructure, we rely on them to spread the word about new books, encourage readers, organise events and act as reading coaches.

Hoda Marmar is one of these tireless and under-celebrated coaches, who cheers on Beirutʹs community of readers. She holds down several jobs – teacher, tutor, proof-reader, research assistant, ticketing agent – but managing Bookoholics is her passion.

An early bibliophile

Marmar has been a reader for as long as she can remember. From a young age, she felt a "sense of wonder whenever I opened a book." But while middle-school teachers encouraged her bibliophilia, she wanted to share her love with others. After finishing a book, she says, she would be bursting with things to say. "As a child and a teen, I could not contain my overwhelmed feelings and felt the urge to share that book and those feelings with others."

Growing up, she said, she fell in love with books by Toufik Youssef Awwad and Mikhail Naimy in Arabic and Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire in French. Later, novels helped her learn English and she gradually moved from simple texts to complex and layered language.

Celebrating Bookoholics 6th anniversary: members voted on their 6 favourite books in English and Arabic (source: Twitter; Hoda Marmar)
The right book, the right questions, a safe space for interaction and true commitment: over the last six years, Bookoholics members have discussed 125 books at almost 100 separate meetings. Highlights of the Beirut groupʹs calendar also include events such as "Read in Arabic Day", "Read in Public Day" and "Blind Date with a Book". As Marmar points out, a book club is about far more than simply recommending titles

In 2010, Marmar was working at her universityʹs library. There, she enjoyed helping match readers – from beginners to instructors – with the right books. "I tried to start a book club at the university, but it wasnʹt a priority to students or to the university.

I then reached out online to readers residing in Lebanon and with steady baby steps, I was able to announce the first book club meeting on 18 July 2012 in a coffee shop in Hamra Street in Beirut."

Emphasis on freedom and independence

From the beginning, Marmarʹs intention was to create a book group that wasnʹt an echo chamber, but brought together people of different backgrounds and beliefs. She wanted to keep Bookoholics as diverse as the country and also independent, with "no financial or political or religious affiliations whatsoever[.]"

In the last six years, Bookoholics has developed a Facebook following of more than 80,000. At regular in-person meetings, group members read and discuss books – by now, they have discussed 125 at almost 100 separate meetings.

Theyʹve also started reviewing books on Instagram and Goodreads. Of course, not all 80,000 Facebook members show up at book discussions. But Marmar said that even online members have said that "the club is encouraging them to read more and they frequently ask for book recommendations."

But a book club is not just for recommending titles. Marmar and Bookoholics are also fostering a community to read more richly and deeply. "When you bring together readers and ask the right questions, you go way deeper into and beyond the book." She said that, when sheʹs leading a discussion, she goes through intense preparation. The end result is not only enjoyable, but itʹs also "how I pay back authors for the effort and heart they exert when writing these books."

"We always find a way"

The group recently marked their six-year anniversary. To celebrate, members looked down the list of books theyʹd read and voted on six favourites in English and six favourites in Arabic. The Arabic selections ranged from classics such as Emily Nasrallahʹs Flight Against Time to more recent books, such as Selim Battiʹs Iʹm Not Leaving My House, Bothayna al-Essaʹs Maps of Wandering and Sinan Antoonʹs Ave Maria, translated to English by Maia Tabet as The Baghdad Eucharist.

Bookoholics has also spearheaded other events, such as "Read in Arabic Day", "Read in Public Day" and "Blind Date with a Book". The latter is held at the beginning of the new year. On this "date", members share a meal and exchange books after dinner.

Bookoholics isnʹt the only book group in Lebanon. There is also the Lebanon Book Club and several bookshops and libraries also run reading groups. Thereʹs also a group at the Lebanese Universityʹs Faculty of Engineering that Marmar says is "mainly into poetry. Marmar isnʹt possessive of the territory and says Bookoholics tries to hold discussions with other groups, such as the Alef group in Beqaa and the "Between the Covers" group in Zgharta.

Although in many Arab countries, book distribution is a potential obstacle to reading groups, Marmar said availability isnʹt an important criterion in selecting new reads. The titles are chosen well in advance and some members buy books during the annual Salon du Livre and Beirut Arabic Book fairs. "It rarely happens that a book is out of print or unavailable. And when it does, we always find a way."

Marmar and Bookoholics put a lot of thought into selecting the books they plan to discuss. Itʹs taken time, Marmar said, but sheʹs come "to understand the members better and look for the book themes, authors and genres of interest to them. Some of the themes that were a hit were books based on true stories, books about motherhood, books from different countries, books with different genres, books by local authors, books about illnesses."

For those whoʹd like to start their own club, Marmar had advice. Ultimately, what glues a club together, she says, is: "The right book, the right discussion questions, a safe space for interaction and true commitment."

Marcia Lynx Qualey

© 2018