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Cover Story : By Word of Mouth : Culture: A longing desire for more meaningful social relationships through the examination and exchange of ideas has fueled a proliferation of book discussion groups across Los Angeles, particularly on the Westside.


On a recent evening, six ambitious, hard-working women put their jobs, kids and significant others aside to gather in a Santa Monica apartment for a discussion on life in the 19th Century.

Over Brie, fruit and biscuits, the group dissected Jane Austen's first novel, "Sense and Sensibility," in a freewheeling discussion that touched on her writing style, choice of themes, story structure and the novel's characters--with a group member at one point laying into a protagonist: "Willoughby's a scoundrel!"

"The one thing I've really missed about college has been engaging in intellectual conversation and discussions," said group member Jody Kelley, 39, a law librarian. "You really get to know each other well through studying books--of who takes sides with what character and who gets morally outraged over what themes."

Said Donna Edmiston, a 34-year-old Los Angeles assistant city attorney and club participant: "You become so close because you're discussing really deep issues like incest, racial themes, relationships--things you might not discuss with friends at a dinner."

The gathering is just one of a number of reading groups that in the past few years have proliferated all over Los Angeles, particularly on the Westside.

With an assortment of book lovers, working professionals, retirees and, sometimes, lonely hearts, the groups usually meet monthly to discuss a wide variety of works, from nonfiction biographies to 19th-Century romantic novels.

There are no formal statistics on the number of book discussion groups throughout the country. But Rachel Jacobsohn, founder of the Illinois-based Assn. of Book Group Readers and Leaders, which links reading groups across the country, estimated that there are more than 250,000 such clubs in the nation--roughly double the number that existed five years ago.

Jacobsohn based her assessment on talks with academics, pollsters, bookstore associations and the accumulation of years of data on clubs throughout the country.

Many experts believe such discussion groups, which tend to attract women more than men, are part of a larger movement to satisfy the desire for more meaningful social relationships through the examination of ideas and exchange of banter in informal gatherings. Discussion groups focusing on topics of the day--the Utne Reader magazine salon groups, for instance--and church reading clubs also have been mushrooming across the country.

"As a culture, we are receiving deeper spiritual insights from poets and novelists rather than from the clergy," said Robert Wuthnow, a professor of sociology at Princeton University and author of "Sharing the Journey--Support Groups and America's New Quest for Community."

Some observers say people seek book discussions to counter workaholic lifestyles and the shallow discourse found on talk shows such as "Oprah" and on sitcom series.

"Though book clubs have existed for the last 20 years, the phenomenon is really growing," said Linda Friedman, co-owner of Chevalier Books in Hancock Park. "People have a real thirst to discuss real things, to bounce ideas off other intelligent people. It's an oasis, to be able to sit down and discuss some serious literature."

Some independent bookstores, to which reading groups gravitate because of their community ties and often specialized offerings, say the trend has increased business. Doug Dutton, owner of Dutton's Brentwood Books estimated that book groups account for 15% of his store's sales.

"This is a true grass-roots phenomenon," said Dutton. "We deal with about 40 book groups a month and I must have two people a day come into the store and ask how to get into a reading group."

Publishers have noted the trend.

Companies such as Doubleday are targeting reading groups by distributing free companion guides for literary works that give author profiles and historical backgrounds and offer lists of discussion questions. Best-selling writers such as Sue Miller, author of the novel "For Love," have gone on nationwide tours to the homes of book club hosts.

Two guidebooks, the "Group Book Group" by Ellen Slezak and the "Reading Group Handbook" by Jacobsohn, were recently published and outline the intricacies of creating successful reading groups. A national newsletter, Ex Libris, based in Newton, Mass. and a magazine, Book Lovers, published out of Milwaukee, Wis., which both inform the growing clubs, are mailed to discussion groups bimonthly. And reading groups are hiring book club "facilitators" for literary guidance and to provide in-house seminars on the most popular books of other clubs.

Judith Palarz, a book club facilitator who works out of her Brentwood home, says a majority of Westside reading groups prefer a gamut of literature. Her suggested reading lists include "something old, something new, something ethnic, something true."

She has noticed most groups are composed of women, with fiction usually more popular than nonfiction.

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