While many festivals that bring readers and authors together strive for volume — a little something for everyone — the first Beverly Hills Literary Escape made a point of being intimate, an experience that's at the root of how book club readers experience books.
The event — which attracted a few hundred participants this weekend, mostly women — offered the chance for book club discussions with authors who generally appear at large literary festivals. Among those participating were Ethan Canin, Susan Straight and National Book Award winner Colum McCann, who accepted the inaugural Medici Book Prize on Sunday night before an audience of 250. Panels opened for audience participation and elegant lunches at venues such as Spago were accompanied by author discussions.
At the Peninsula Hotel, Dani Shapiro discussed her spiritual memoir, "Devotion," in a session that started with a meditation led by Sylvia Boorstein. It was capped at 32 participants.
On nearby Beverly Drive, Aimee Bender talked about her bestselling novel "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake" at Geary's, the luxury gift shop, over champagne and — what else? — lemon cake. "How fun and different and strange to sit at a fancy, antique-looking desk, amongst fancy, silver boxes," Bender said of the event that drew about 30 guests to the small venue.
Book clubs formed the constituency of the Literary Escape. While there are plenty of casual book clubs, formally led book clubs are popular in Los Angeles.
With her company Literary Affairs, Julie Robinson has been leading book clubs for more than a decade, mostly on L.A.'s Westside, mostly with women. Nationwide, Robinson says, 95% of book club members are women. She charges $300 per session; the fee is split among members of the group, which can be as small as two or as large as 20.
Robinson, who has led book-related excursions before, co-founded the Beverly Hills Literary Escape with Tyson Cornell, who started the Rare Bird Literary, an events company. Cornell brought the execution to the Literary Escape plan, which often involved events simultaneously at different venues, while Robinson brought the inspiration and the readers.
Almost everyone who bought a ticket had a connection to Robinson and her book clubs. Weekend passes were $395; individual events ran from $20 up to $125. Others paid even more, willingly.
Laura Strauss, who volunteers as a docent at LACMA, supported the event as a Medici sponsor; sponsorships started at $2,500. Sunday morning, she carried a green bag full of books.
"I came here to experience new books with the authors," she said. "When you talk to them, you can see why they wrote what they wrote." She had a long discussion with debut novelist Brando Skyhorse ("The Madonnas of Echo Park") and talked to Canin about new media. "They're just like I am," she said, surprised, comparing that realization to the experience of being a child and seeing a teacher at the grocery store — a sudden understanding of the humanity of someone you look up to. "We all bring our own background and experience," she said. "They just write it."
Like others supporters, Strauss would like to see the Literary Escape as an annual event. City planner Lili Bosse, a self-described "avid reader," helped pull all the pieces together. She arranged for 10% of the book sales to be donated to the Beverly Hills Public Library and facilitated arrangements with the city and local businesses, with the idea that in the future the weekend will be a destination event for readers from all over the country.
This year, most attendees were local. It's not clear whether next time around book club members who don't know Robinson personally will be compelled by the idea of traveling to give such an event a try. But what is clear is that despite the economic downturn, there are still women who can afford to spend a weekend spoiling themselves — and for some, that means curling up with a good book.