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Book Talk

Readers Are Having Their Say Thanks to New and Creative Literary Gatherings

Imprints Literary Supplement 1998

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Book Talk Readers Are Having Their Say Thanks to New and Creative Literary Gatherings | By Eileen Murphy

By Eileen Murphy | Posted 10/14/1998

On a Saturday evening, in a Hampden rowhouse, eight people sit in an Ikea-furnished living room and talk about Molière. It's an ethnically diverse group, and its members are students, teachers, scientists, and mathematicians. A man and a woman read aloud from Tartuffe, and although they haven't encountered this script before, they quickly fall into the rhythm, nail the timing, and soon have the group laughing. At the end of the scene, the group takes a short break to refill their glasses and socialize. Then it's back to the script, with two new readers adopting roles.

Welcome to the monthly meeting of A Salon of One's Own, a literary group formed by Cynthia Gaver. In February of 1997, Gaver ran a classified newspaper ad seeking people interested in sharing literature and making new friends. Initial interest was strong, and members soon brought friends and co-workers. When they're not meeting, the group stays in touch through phone calls and e-mail, and although attendance fell off this past summer, Gaver hopes the cold weather will bring in new members.

A Salon of One's Own is not a book-discussion group. Members bring plays, poems, short stories, or books they want to share, and they read aloud the passages as the group listens. Although Gaver assigns a theme for the evening, members can ignore it and bring whatever they're reading. During last December's meeting, one member disregarded the holiday theme and read aloud from a book about male aggression in apes. Members tend to talk between readings, and their discussions move from the topic at hand to issues of politics, class, and evolution.

This Baltimore salon is yet another twist on the revival of social groups based on books. There are book-centered clubs everywhere you look--at libraries, in bookstores, in private homes. There are book clubs focused on specific genres, book clubs formed around age and gender, and book clubs formed by institutions. Libraries assist book clubs by gathering multiple copies of a book at a single branch, and publishing houses now provide discussion-group guides--which can often be downloaded for free from the publisher's Web site--for their more popular books.

Locally, Suzanne Shaw publishes Women's Literature Review, a three-times-a-year newsletter founded in November 1997. Shaw hatched the idea for the publication when she realized women's books aren't given equal space in literary reviews. She read The New York Times Book Review but found, "In one issue there was not a single book reviewed [that was written] by a female author until page 17, and the book was a work of fiction which had just come out in paperback.

"My original goal was to introduce women to new authors who they might not [already] read," Shaw says. She'd like the newsletter to reach women in book clubs, and not only to increase her subscriber base of 150 readers.

"A lot of people bring really bad books to book groups. I was hoping this would help people to have a better selection when they go to their book groups," Shaw says. And that doesn't mean she only recommends high literature. "Some books that are badly written are the best books for discussion. Some books that are 'good' don't lend themselves to discussion."

Each issue of the Women's Literature Review includes reviews of recent releases, articles on Shaw's favorite authors, and information about book sales and events. Shaw is particularly proud of the "Author Focus" column, where she can spotlight older books that aren't likely to be discussed in literary reviews. Older books are a good bet for book clubs, since they're available at libraries and in paperback.

Older books rate high for Dale Balfour's book club, which concentrates on reading only books that are available in paperback. Although clubs such Balfour's are all the rage, this group of women was ahead of the trend; they've been meeting to discuss books for 33 years.

"We were all mothers with babies, and we were all college-educated. We wanted to keep from going brain-dead," Balfour says with a laugh. "We were knee-deep in Dr. Spock."

Since serious books provided their respite from what Balfour calls "diaper talk," the group's discussion seldom strayed from the subject at hand. Now it's become a habit. "We keep each other honest," Balfour says. "If we get too far off the subject, someone will say, 'We're getting off topic.'"

The first 30 minutes or so of each meeting are set aside for socializing, a habit that Balfour credits for some of the group's success. "It takes about half an hour for everybody to get there, so we spend that time catching up. We've been friends for years."

The group has a formal structure: Each meeting has a hostess, who takes care of the refreshments, and a presenter, who delivers a brief talk on the book and author and then leads the discussion. The presenter has plenty of time to prepare, since books are chosen a year in advance.

"Sometimes we choose a theme--all women, Russian writers, World War I," Balfour says. The group settles on the schedule in June, and then takes the summer off, giving each member a chance to get ahead on her reading. When they meet again in September, everyone is ready to go.

The Enoch Pratt Free Library hosts a book club with a distinct advantage: No one has to buy the books. Pratt librarians Faye Houston and Richard Olozio formed the group four years ago by putting up flyers in the fiction department.

"Of the people who are in it now, three or four have been in it since the beginning," Houston says.

Pratt's book club meets monthly, and like most book clubs, its members are mostly women. Unlike most groups, Houston says, the Pratt's members have plenty of time to read and don't need to take book length into consideration. Houston believes the biggest challenge to keeping a book club going is choosing the right books for that group, so she reads lists and reviews. She tries to keep a good mix and an open mind.

"We look at recommended books and books that win prizes. We alternate fiction and nonfiction," she says. "I've been trying to get them to read science fiction, and they just won't. We've read murder mysteries. We read a Barbara Tuchman [history] book, but no one finished it."

And Houston insists that having the right members is just as important as choosing the right books. "If you really want to get a group together, the most important thing is that everybody likes to read and talk."

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