Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Literary Salons and Book Groups

by Julia Flynn Siler

If there is a modern American equivalent to the French salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, it may be found in the thousands of book groups that gather regularly across the nation in living rooms, public libraries, and local coffee houses to discuss literature and ideas -- often passionately, and with a great deal of wine and laughter involved.

For those who complain that America has become a nation of non-readers, don't try telling that to my book group, which began eight years ago and has remained sturdily and stubbornly afloat all this time. Some of our original members have dropped, to be replaced by others along the way. But we've almost always had a large group of about eight to 10 members, all of whom are mothers who love books.
Book lover Liz Epstein guides groups through the classics; below, at Book Group Expo, panelists Sara Davidson, Po Bronson and Elizabeth Gilbert interact with moderator Sam Barry -- and the book group community.
Top photo from bookpassage.com; bottom photo from fora.tv

I helped found our group with my friend Liz Epstein. Like me, she had recently returned to the U.S. after living overseas for many years. Although we both lived in London during the 1990s, we never met each other there. It wasn't until our first-borns enrolled in the same kindergarten class that we realized we had a lot in common -- including both feeling culture shock after returning home to the States.

The book club we formed as a result helped reduce some of that shock, partly through the friendships we formed but also by reading wonderful British fiction together, such as Monica Ali's Brick Lane. Since those early days, Liz has gone on to earn a Masters' in English Literature and to launch a business moderating book clubs called Literary Masters.

Liz's goal is to fill the gap between those frustrating reading groups that tend to devolve from a discussion of the book into a gossip session and university classes where people have to write papers and do homework. In other words, she's running discussion groups for serious readers who also want to have fun. Her group this fall at Book Passage -- also called Literary Masters -- will take place on four Wednesdays, from 10 a.m. to noon, and the group will read, in turn, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina. She's also leading a group on Jane Austen. We've had the good fortune of reading many of Miss Austen's books in our club over the years (most recently Pride and Prejudice) and have loved the insights and focus Liz brought to our group.

Liz is a wonderfully gifted moderator, with a sharp wit and great sense of humor. She's great fun but also has an ability to keep us talking about the book. Contact her at liz@literarymasters.net for more information about her groups.

Another marvelous moderator who is organizing a reading group through Book Passage this fall is Pamela Feinsilber, the literary editor of San Francisco magazine. Pamela has put together an impressive line-up of local authors to come talk to her group about their work -- including Anita Amirrezvani, author of the bestseller The Blood of Flowers, and my hero, Adam Hochschild, who wrote the prize-winning nonfiction classic, Bury the Chains.

I joined Pamela's group for her spring session this year and will talk about The House of Mondavi with the group next Monday, July 14th. Please get in touch with Pamela at pfeinsilber@sanfranmag.com if you'd like to join us (and I'll be bringing a couple of bottles of Mondavi and Charles Krug wines to sample, as well). You can find out more about Pamela on Redroom, the new online literary community.

Book groups have become so popular that there's even an annual convention for them. Liz and I traveled together to San Jose, Calif., to moderate sessions at last year's Book Group Expo (BGE), a great event that brings together nearly 1,000 authors and readers for a weekend in October. Who knew there were so many book groups out there? And who knew that publishers and filmmakers these days are trying so hard to woo these groups?

To be sure, my publisher, Penguin's Gotham Books, paid the expenses for me to go to the event in hope that The House of Mondavi would become a popular book group pick. The bet paid off: a number of book clubs have contacted me over the past few months to ask me to participate in their discussions, either by phone or in person.

My Wall Street Journal colleague Jeffrey Trachtenberg wrote a fascinating page-one story shortly before last year's BGE titled: "Book Case: From Hardcover to Paper, How a Blockbuster Was Born -- A Calculated Approach For Eat, Pray, Love," which examined how Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir became a blockbuster. The answer?
"The book's transformation from respectable-selling hardcover to paperback sensation was no accident," wrote Jeff. "It came about after a series of calculated moves from Viking's sister Penguin paperback line, where executives worked to interpret sales patterns and create a marketing blitz to attract individual readers as well as book clubs."

Book club moderators such as Julie Robinson, the founder of Literary Affairs in Beverly Hills, California, also helped pushed Ms. Gilbert's book early on, helping it to gain traction with readers.

Author Khaled Hosseini acknowledged this word-of-mouth marketing power when he opened last year's BGE with an address that profusely thanked the audience, event founder Ann Kent told the New York Times:
"He said that 'The Kite Runner' wasn't being read until book groups got hold of it ... He acknowledged their power in putting his book on the best-seller list and keeping it on the best-seller list. It was pretty profound."

Perhaps Liz Epstein's love of Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, and Gustave Flaubert and Pamela Feinsilber's finely-tuned sense of which contemporary books might become classics will help build a new groundswell of interest for these and other literary masters.

Julia Flynn Siler is the author of the New York Times bestseller The House of Mondavi. She will host a wine tasting and talk about her book at Book Passage at the San Francisco Ferry Building on Sunday, July 13th, at 2:00 p.m. For more information, please visit: www.juliaflynnsiler.com.

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