Who's afraid of the big (good) Second Life Book Club?

Who's afraid of the big (good) Second Life Book Club?

Hi. I’m Bernhard Drax - award-winning media maker and former radio journalist - and I am a bookseller’s dream. On average I devour 120 books per year, mostly literary and genre novels. I have time to do this because I don’t watch TV and my Facebook account has been deactivated years ago. 

Reading is my meditation. It grounds me. But e-Books are verboten. For me, it’s strictly paper books. This may seem contradictory for someone who spends a significant portion of his life working with and engaged in technology. Specifically, a virtual world where my avatar (Draxtor Despres) runs a book community called the Second Life Book Club.

The Second Life Book Club’s flagship offering is an hour-long program every Wednesday at 12 pm Pacific Time (8pm UK time), where I have conversations with writers about their work, the craft and the business.The book club venue “seats” an audience of 50 in-world, and reaches an average of 3000 viewers through simultaneous live broadcasts on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

The conversation is followed by  a “post-game hangout”, where writers and audience members can converse. Since April  2020 my guests have included Charles Yu (National Book Award Finalist with Interior Chinatown), Yvonne Battle-Felton (longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 with Remembered), famed children’s book illustrator from Syria, Nadine Kaadan, and star of Indian speculative fiction, Samit Basu.

The book club grew out of the collaborative effort of Second Life Maker Linden Lab and myself, a Linden Lab contractor, as a way to demonstrate the viability of a virtual book tour in response to the impact of Covid-19 lockdown measures on the publishing industry.

Initially the concept was met with some degree of uncertainty, owing in part to publishers being unfamiliar with Second Life. Or at least that was my initial sense, being an outsider to this industry. I started to wonder if publishers felt that digital worlds are a competitor to books?

I asked myself whether, in the publicist’s mind, sending their most precious authors to visit a computer-generated world populated by (as they may presume) gender-stereotyped Barbies and Kens engrossed in escapism, would perhaps signal defeat in the ongoing battle between analog and digital worlds for the paying customer? After all: eyeballs glued to a simulated 3D space would be unable or unwilling to pick up and read a book ...

I empathize with these concerns. I am not a gamer and I have dabbled little in other online offerings. 

Here is the thing though: Second Life is not a game. It is a blank piece of 3D paper that we can fold, rip apart and glue back together. We can use this piece of paper to doodle on, we can color it and we can do it together with others in real time. We are present in this process. Second Life is a creative space - a book if you will - and we can enter it to write the story together.

In the context of our Book Club, we can create a new world from scratch for every author. A spaceship, a pirate ship, a castle. We can hang out on the back of a flying dragon or in an intimate living room. Award-winning YA authors Margi Preus and Sarah Darer Littman shared the stage with gigantic virtual versions of their current releases dropping from the ceiling, Fantasy superstar Tad Williams was teleporting around the several layered worlds on book club island as if he had indeed entered his own Otherland.

Avatars can be customized. Sci-fi legends Larry Niven and Joe Haldeman both appeared as aliens. Katharine Duckett was a centaur. Will Wiles was a cockatoo. Oh and did I mention that events can be ticketed? Second Life has its own economy tied to the US dollar, and it is humming along nicely at around 500 million US$ in annual transactions of virtual goods and services. The possibilities are endless.

Our avatars are digital representations of ourselves, which allow us to interact and communicate with each other in real time in virtual spaces. This kind of interaction with truly embodied presence fosters dialogue and community building. The SL Book Club is an intentional community. 

And this community is shaped (through actual world-building) by all of us. It is a persistent place, where our Wednesday show is only a small part of. You can come in-world anytime and chances are you will be able to connect with a fellow book nerd immediately. 

Maybe you can inspire a lapsed reader to pick up that great new short story or novel you just finished? Perhaps you want to host your own public or private gathering of book enthusiasts? Are you a writer who wants to discuss work in progress with fellow practitioners of the craft in a boutique cafe nestled in a cozy town? Anything is possible.

In Second Life, book lovers transcend geography, age and ethnic background. While these remain crucial aspects of our identity, in this world we regain new agency over them so that we can - collaboratively, as readers and writers - compose a brand new story.

Whether you’re a publisher, bookseller, agent, illustrator, entrepreneur, writer or (like me) avid reader, there is space and opportunity for you here.

Bernhard Drax is an independent media maker, classically trained musician/composer and former public radio news director who focuses on documenting creative diversity in virtual worlds via his Drax Files World Makers series on YouTube. He is a Linden Lab contractor, producing most of their video content for YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as well as hosting the weekly Second Life Book Club.