Between the Lines

It's a warm sunny afternoon and a group of 20 men and women, four to five decades removed from college, are indoors, sitting around tables at a community center, pondering the meaning of a difficult essay by Josephine Foo. A few evenings later, a group of professional women 20 to 30 years their junior meet after work to tackle the civil rights era as part of their discussion of former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elder's biography. The next night, a more varied group meets at the Public Library to discuss Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, a novel exploring two couples' relationships.These meetings aren't modern day renditions of Dorothy Parker's round table discussions at the Algonquin, but they do reflect a growing national trend--friends and acquaintances gathering on a regular basis to discuss books of literary merit.Significantly, this seemingly sudden passion for books is not limited to the hallowed halls of college campuses or the hushed confines of local libraries. Even talk-show maven Oprah Winfrey has started a bookclub on her popular television show, prompting inquiries on her "club's" first two books, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and Jacquelyn Mitchard's Deep End of the Ocean, at booksellers around the county.Fueled--if not fostered--by such literary movies as Howard's End, Remains of the Day, Age of Innocence, Emma and this month's release, The English Patient, there are ample clues of this new literary craze. At some bookstores, members of local bookclubs can search for their required reading on shelves dedicated to their membership. There are bookclubs on the Internet, books dedicated to starting bookclubs, publishers developing outlines specifically for bookclub books, and even a nationwide clearinghouse for readers in search of bookclubs.Interestingly enough, people who are involved in these discussion groups say that it is at least partly the personal nature of reading and discussing books--usually fiction--that draws readers to bookclubs in the first place. Fed up with the electronic isolation of television and computers, these people are turning--or perhaps returning--to the lure of face-to-face contact that prompted some of the first literary discussion groups in 18th century European coffeehouses."I think, increasingly, people are starting to get tired of passive entertainment," says Stuart Walzer. A now-retired attorney who took ideas from the "Lawyers' Literary Society" that he belonged to in LA, and transformed them into two reading circles he now leads with his wife, Paula, in Monterey. "You learn about your own lives by getting into the lives of others. Reading is a way of doing that without getting too involved.""It's sitting around in extreme comfort with literature as a central catalyst to discuss humans' place in humanity, humans' place in the cosmos and humans' place in the community--with other humans," says Rachel Jacobsohn. A Chicago-area bookclub leader who has authored The Reading Group Handbook (Hyperion, $10.95), Jacobson has also founded The Association of Book Groups Leaders and Readers, a 600-member "cooperative information clearinghouse for avid bibliophiles" in search of reading groups, reading group leaders, or just more information on starting or bettering their bookclub.With an emphasis on sharing thoughts about books and the memories they stir, perhaps it's not surprising that bookclubs tend to be dominated by women. "I think that women are more inclined to want to share their ideas and stuff and to talk to each other and sort of process what they've read," observes Sandra Haldeman Martz, the founder and owner of Papier Mache Press in Watsonville, Calif. a small company dedicated to publishing books by and for women. "Women read to escape, but women also read to learn about themselves. That's their way of figuring out themselves, their lives, their problems, and the decisions they have to make.""Women are more inclined to talk between themselves," agrees Walzer. "Men have a hard time. When you get off the subject of sports or their particular profession or business, they're hard pressed to talk about things."Nonetheless, Walzer--who co-leads a group at the Monterey Public Library as well as a "Challenge Bookclub" of less-accessible material in his home--encourages not just men, but couples to attend book groups together.So does Joe Golden, a one-time teacher of "great books" at Saint Mary's College in the San Francisco Bay Area who has been leading a weekly group of about 20 retirees in a short story/essay group for the past 20 years. "I like to have husbands and wives if I can," says Golden. "It gives them a chance to talk about something."While some bookclubs rotate discussion leadership among members, others opt for facilitators like Walzer and Golden to keep the literary conversation going. Golden even gets paid by his club members--a lofty sum that he says amounts to about 85 cents per meeting. Nevertheless, in more urban areas, book club leading can be more profitable."Private groups hire me, or I send out invitations," says Jacobsohn, a former elementary school teacher who began leading book groups as an amateur before being encouraged by fans to turn pro. In that capacity, she leads university, Elder hostel and other community groups in thoughtful literary discussions, bringing to the book club meetings "a great deal of critical analysis, a great deal of questions, organization and leadership skills" for a price of about $100 to $300 per two-hour session.Professional group leaders like Jacobsohn and like Lisa Buchanan, a San Francisco bookstore publicist who once simultaneously led five bookclubs, say outside leaders help keep the conversation at bookclubs focused on the literary business at hand. "One of the concerns, specifically, when a group is full of friends is we fall into discussions about our families," says Buchanan. "Of course, people always draw on their own personal experiences, but with a facilitator there, no one would be tempted to have their daughter going off to college be the focus of the discussion."From a sociological standpoint, the women-in-bookclubs trend is particularly interesting in that it contradicts theories suggesting that women are increasingly pressed for leisure time, and consequently, are reading less.Some local bookclubs avoid the whole issue of over-committed members by primarily drawing from the ranks of readers who are retired or at least finished with the busy years of raising a family. "We have had such busy lives that we have come to the point where reading is important," says Katie Patterson of Monterey, who belongs to a group of readers that meets one morning a month at Thunderbird under the leadership of shop owner May Waldroup.Other women who manage to fit bookclubs into their frantic schedules say they create a luxurious private time by sneaking a few pages of reading into their daily schedules (a technique practiced by women almost since Gutenberg).Ann Flint, a 16-year member of Golden's group at the Carmel Foundation, recalls starting a bookclub during her child-rearing days in South Dakota 40 years ago. There, she read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and the book "changed my life. It really did.""I have heard this comment--which is, 'you know the last 20 minutes of the day is my reading time,'" says Buchanan."I read between two and four in the morning," says Waldroup. "I have a nice sleep, then I have a wonderful two hours reading under my belt." One group of working women at the Monterey Bay Aquarium has even figured out how to sandwich their monthly bookclub meeting into their lunch hour."At first we thought we might do it at night,'" says bookclub founder Cristina Fekeci, who says the group found juggling babysitters and family obligations too difficult during the evenings but not "not too complicated for people to make that commitment at lunch."The extent of the bookclub commitment--and how seriously it is taken--depends in large part on the book group itself.In Waldroup's group, attending the discussion without completing the book is "verboten" even though one group member insists she "gets something out of the discussion" even when she hasn't read the book from cover to cover. For Fekeci's group, "we decided early on that this is not going to be a stressful business, because we have enough stress in our lives." As a result, "if we have a lot of trouble getting through the book, we just let it go.""I think it's a running problem that sometimes the books don't get finished," says Jean Thurman, who manages Bookworks in Pacific Grove, Calif., and also belongs to two different monthly reading groups. "But if you read even half of the book, there's a lot to discuss.""With the group we have--maybe 16 or 17 women invited to join--oftentimes people can't come," says Becky Mojica of Pacific Grove, who co-founded a local bookclub. Mojica recalls one woman who, planning for the bookclub's meeting at her house, prepared "a spread" of refreshments--only to find that just two members showed up."I think a lot of the women didn't realize that it's just etiquette to say 'I'm not going to be able to make it'," says Mojica. "That's one of our guidelines."The actual nuts-and-bolts rules of the bookclub; the specifics of how it is run, also varies by club, and is largely dependent upon the energy and time commitment of individual members. Some groups ask members to take turns hosting the club, others choose a central location like a restaurant to hold their meetings. Some clubs ask members to explore specific topics or prepare questions in advance. Other groups just open the entire book to discussion."I usually start out with an opener, maybe throw out a question. Or if the discussion has a lull in it, you throw out a question like 'How many of you liked the book?'" says Walzer. "More interesting even are the people who disliked it.""Some people do research outside of the book itself," says Thurman. "One woman looks things up in atlases and art history books, and brings depth to the book that you didn't know was there."Some clubs insist that members submit for discussion only books that the nominating member has read. Other groups demand that the book be new to all members. Some groups develop a list of books months in advance. Other groups decide their books on a meeting-to-meeting basis. There are groups that concentrate on paperbacks--a popular strategy, given the high cost of hardbacks. Some groups read only classics, others focus on books by and about women. Still other groups pride themselves on introducing members to books they wouldn't necessarily choose on a solo jaunt to the bookstore or library.Golden recalls reading "some short stories from Latin America, which really opened up vistas for me" as well as for the group. "I'm no authority on these things," adds Golden, who recalls introducing his longtime readers to challenging themes of homosexuality and violence that cropped up in the midst of literary discussions. "They opened up some minds," says Golden. "I would never personally have picked up Jurassic Park in a million years," adds Fekeci of one bookclub selection. "But I really enjoyed it and I really enjoyed the conversation about it. It was a subject matter I had never thought of before."Virtually every group does seem to focus on what aficionados delineate as "bookclub books;" books that Walzer describes as novels having "a lot of character delineation" and Thurman calls "literate, interesting, challenging books with often-interesting settings."Hence, among bookclubs are a certain duplication of titles that are literary, but not-too dense; accessible, but not too simplistic. Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient is a popular bookclub title, so is David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars; a book Jacobsohn says "was made by bookclubs."From a marketing point of view, bookclubs are having an effect on book sales, although the extent of that effect is open to debate. Jacobsohn, who has been asked by a few small publishers to actually develop outlines on upcoming books for bookclub discussions, says publishers "are throwing around figures that bookclubs generate 15-20 percent" of some book sales. Martz isn't sure that bookclubs are really all that popular for publishers, since "the publishing industry is so focused on new books, and a lot of the books these groups are choosing are not new books." Nevertheless, says Martz, "a lot of publishers, including Papier Mache have released books in the context that this is a nice group to know about your book, and if you have that kind of a [bookclub-type] book to promote, these might be your readers."From a retail perspective, most bookstores are hedging their bets, willingly ordering, displaying--and sometimes discounting--books for local reading groups, even if buyers aren't convinced the profits are huge."We started putting books aside for the clubs as a community service," says Bookshop Santa Cruz Special Orders Supervisor Kerry O'Shaughnessy, who orders books for about 10 different bookclubs. "It's picked up a little, but we do a lot of special ordering for customers. Bookclubs are not a significant percentage of that business."Marie Whisenant, a spokeswoman for Borders corporate offices, says the 153-store chain regards bookclubs as part of its "overall events program." In that capacity, she says each store offers a variety of bookclubs on themes of interest to the surrounding community--a community Whisenant says increasingly sees bookstores "as a legitimate alternative to other forms of entertainment, like nightclubs."And for a community craving intellectual stimulation as well as companionship, bookclubs may be the best thing since Literature 101. "It's like going back for the best part of school," says Thurman, "without any of the tests or the homework."SIDEBAR 1: FOOTNOTESA guide to bookclub resources.Here are a few books that might be helpful for starting or maintaining a bookclub:Book Group Book by Ellen Slezak is a collection of essays by different people in book groups. The Reading Group Handbookp by Rachel Jacobsohn and The Reading Group Book by David Laskin and Holly Hughes both deal specifically with the mechanics of running clubs.A year membership in the Association of Book Groups Readers and Leaders, which includes a newsletter and clearing house for readers and book group leaders, costs $18. For more information, contact Rachel Jacobsohn at (847) 266-0431 or via e-mail: rachelj@interaccess.com.SIDEBAR2: GOOD READING, GOOD TALKINGBooks that appeal to bookclub discussion groups have special qualities. Not every good book makes a good bookclub book. No matter how enjoyable, exciting or informative a book may be, if it doesn't inspire spirited discussions it'll be a flop."A good bookclub book is one you feel you have to discuss with someone afterwards," says Bookworks Manager and bookclub member Jean Thurman. "It generates thoughts or emotions you have to share with other people. It's not just entertaining, it's stimulating in some way."Thurman points to Moo, by Jane Smiley, as a book that doesn't make the cut. "It was a pleasant-enough book," says Thurman, "but there was nothing to say about it. It was what it was. Her other book, A Thousand Acres, is regularly read and generates lots of discussion."Some of today's best-selling authors don't fit into the bookclub mold. Despite sales that make him one of the few superstars in the publishing world, Stephen King's books don't make the cut."Most of his books are plot driven," explains Thurman. "In a good bookclub book, there is more of an emphasis on character or technique or background. Stephen King has a very straightforward writing style, very little in the way of characterizations. He's very good at suspenseabut suspense isn't very discussible."I think Dick Francis is one of the best mystery writers but I can't imagine sitting down and discussing one of his books. One person would say 'that was a good book' and the other person would say 'it sure was.' He doesn't bring up any discussion points."Although bookclub books cover a broad range of topics and styles, they are most successful when they present characters or situations with which readers can identify.One True Story, by Anna Quindlen (Dell, $6.99), is "the story of a woman dealing with her mother dying of cancer, caring for her mother," says Thurman. "It is very good and it was moving to me because my mother died of cancer. I'm sure it would bring up a lot of memories and emotions that people would like to share with each other. It would be a good stimulus for other discussions because almost everyone knows someone who has died from cancer."According to veteran bookclub leader Joe Golden, Writing Women's Lives edited by Susan Cahill (Harper, $15), gives readers ample impetus for talking about their own experiences. "Fifty distinguished writers discuss the common experiences of women as children, daughters, wives, lovers, mothers, activists, artists, travelers and intellectuals. Anne Dillard, Maxine Hong Kingston, Maya Angelou, MFK Fisher and Eudora Welty are among the writers," says Golden.Insofar as the bookclub movement is dominated by women, it's not surprising that books by and about women seem to be the rule.A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris (Warner, $11.99) is a book that's enjoyed great popularity. "It's a terrific book, in three parts, three novellas," says Thurman. "The first is the story of a Native American woman in the present day, the second is the story of her mother and the third is her grandmother. The first story is good, the second story is better and the third story is fantastic. I don't know anyone who doesn't like it."Along the same lines as Yellow Raft, Wild Swans by Jung Chang (Doubleday, $14.95) is about three generations of women in China. "It starts with the time of the foot binding and ends in the communist era during the oppressive rule of the Gang of Five," says Thurman. "This is not a novel; it's the true story of three generations of women in China. The fascination of this book is in the details. There are so many aspects that are different from ours. Some of it horrifying, some of it wonderful. The details of the footbinding were interesting; I didn't know that the foot never heals. The bones are broken, the foot is infected [and the women] are truly in pain their whole lives."These kinds of discoveries--or rediscoveries-are part of the bookclub experience. Golden suggests The Portable Sherwood Anderson (Penguin, $9.95) as a way of learning more about a significant contributor to American letters. "It's a collection of Anderson's short stories and essays, and excerpts from longer fiction... It was a rediscovery of an important American writer."Sometimes the knowledge gained from participating in a bookclub doesn't come directly from the books being read.Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (Vintage, $12) "is about two things," says Thurman. "A Japanese man in a murder trial, so it's a mystery but it's also about the internment of the Japanese during World War II.It's peeling layers of truth about this event that happened in the past. As the book goes on you find out more and more of the truth. It's like peeling an onion." Thurman says the book offers a chance for people with special knowledge about history, the Pacific Northwest or Japanese-American culture to make significant contributions to the discussion and enrich the overall reading experience. "There are certain kinds of books that have so much to them that it's tough to find it all on your own," says Thurman.Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (Random House, $12) centers around finding the identity of a patient who is being treated in an abandoned villa in Italy at the end of WWII as the Germans are retreating. "It's about a patient, presumably English, who is burned beyond recognition and has no identification and the nurse who takes care of him," Thurman explains. "The other main characters are a thief whose hands have been maimed as a punishment for his thievery and an Indian sapper. In some ways it's like Snow Falling on Cedars, you start out knowing very little and it's revealed to you bit by bit. That's what makes it a good bookclub book. All these bits of information thrown at you."It was not universally liked though, Ondaatje's writing style is very dense, very poetic. It's always more interesting when some people don't like [a book]. The characters are not very sympathetic. And the writing is very dense. Which made us feel the same way."-Chuck Thurman

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