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Readers of the Lost Art: An Endangered Species Flourishes in the Southland

May 14, 1987|LYNDON STAMBLER | Stambler is a free-lance writer who lives in West Los Angeles. and

I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else has turned.

--Helene Hanff, "84 Charing Cross Road"

In this age of compact discs and VCRs, the gathering seemed a little out of sync. No one was staring at a TV screen.

The people instead sat in a sunlit room that looked like books were just beginning to take over--seven women comfortably sipping tea and peering into copies of Eudora Welty's novel, "Delta Wedding," ready to exchange comments on what they had read.

"Let's start with place in the novel," said the group's leader, Judy Taylor. A gigantic dog, Pippa, slumbered peacefully as the women responded enthusiastically.

"Place is key to what the novel is about. That's why Welty chose the title," Cookie Miller said.

"The Delta is absolutely essential to the sensibilities of the novel," Ruth Goldstein added.

This was a typical exchange at one of many book groups in Los Angeles. Despite national concerns about illiteracy, consolidations in the publishing industry and the dwindling number of independent bookstores, such meetings appear to be flourishing in Los Angeles.

"There's a great need for talking about a third thing that isn't yourself," said Taylor, who runs three groups. "Our society is not a nourishing society. That's the reason many people are turning to things like art and literature."

"Living in L.A. can be a wonderful experience," added Peter Broderick, a member of Bibliophiles West, which is currently reading William Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!," "but you have to decide what people and things you want in your life and create that. The book group is part of this."

Book groups are as diverse as the City of Angels, among them assemblages of feminists, artists, poets and lawyers. They come under various titles: the Mad Pooh Party, Bibliophiles West, the Chamber Pot Society, the World Press Society and Round Table West, to name a few. And they are often more than just book groups. They are places of romance, support and intrigue.

Sharing Two Traits

But the members all share two traits: a love of books . . . "All of us are people trying to hold on to a reading habit in a world where that's not a common thread," said Mary Nichols, who has been in a group for 10 years.

And a love of food. At a recent meeting of a group called the Mad Pooh Party, a British member prepared homemade scones, finger sandwiches filled with watercress, and his father's peach punch. After eating scones smeared with heavy cream and raspberry jam, the members began to discuss Chaim Potok's "Davita's Harp."

Although there is no accurate way to assess the number of groups in L.A., interest appears to be growing. Jennifer Lambelet, adult services coordinator for the Los Angeles Public Library, said there has been more interest expressed lately in such groups. Gary Fleischman, a Beverly Hills lawyer, said that 14 people are on a waiting list to get into his group.

And a spokeswoman for the Great Books Foundation, Deborah Mantia, said the formal reading and discussion programs (started by Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago in 1947) have been growing at a 20% rate in recent years. There are groups in Beverly Hills, Pasadena and Palos Verdes. But that's just the tip of the iceberg because there are 4,500 adult groups nationwide.

You can find out about Great Books programs at your local library. But most book groups are less formalized and known only by word of mouth. Sometimes they spring from UCLA Extension classes.

Extremely Selective

Many groups are extremely selective. "The selection of people is absolutely critical," said Broderick of Bibliophiles West. "You can't just put eight to 10 people in a group . . . . By and large you need to have a commitment from people to read the book. You also need a mixture of perspective. You need people who won't filibuster or be silent . . . You need to be able to listen carefully to one another."

When the mix is right, "I have felt during the discussion that the book has actually grown before our eyes."

But discussions can also shake a group's foundations. Broderick was in a Washington, D.C., group that ran into trouble when it read "Dispatches" by Michael Herr, a book about Vietnam. "The underlying political differences rose to the surface," Broderick said. "There was sort of an explosion. A number of people left the group. The other part of the group continued on."

Many groups slowly fade out as members find other interests, but some survive for years. Nita and Jack Corinblit began meeting with a number of other young couples in 1951. Since then, they have met the first Saturday of every month. "Over the years it has been like an extended family," Nita Corinblit said.

"People have passed away. The widows are still there. . . . We have no constitution or bylaws . . . We're just a group of friends."

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