Book Clubs Abound

`I WAS girding for a really weird evening," Mike Tidwell says of the night he journeyed from his ascetic writer's world across the Potomac to a suburban book discussion group held at a house on a manicured cul-de-sac with a name straight out of a Harlequin romance.

But Mr. Tidwell got a taste of what may be the brightest new trend to light up American living rooms since the cathode-ray tube. Book groups, a salon-type movement with 19th-century roots, are resurging nationwide.

"My expectations were low. I thought I'd encounter a very vanilla, uninspiring group of people who like popular literature," says Tidwell, who was invited because the group was discussing his book "The Ponds of Kalambayi" (Lyons & Burford). Passing tricycles in the driveway, he wondered what interest the wing-tipped and high-heeled suburbanites could have in tribal Zaire, the subject of his Peace Corps memoir.

"I found that books were at the center of their lives, and they like to talk about them," Tidwell says. "Their minds were refreshingly inquisitive and passionate, and what really struck me was that we are really like-minded. It opened my mind to the fact that book lovers come in all stripes."

Indeed, the diversity of such groups shows how many people like books and seek a chance to talk about them.

Groups can be as intense as the Chicago literary gluttons who paid a teacher to lead them in a discussion of James Joyce's complex novel "Ulysses" - not through one reading, but two.

Or they can be as laid back as the 20-year-old group of Washington professional couples who write books themselves but feel they aren't "well read" because there's no time for literature unless they make a date to discuss it informally with friends over dinner.

These book groups are rapidly increasing, say those who participate in and study the groups. A Rice University sociologist, Elizabeth Long, found more than 100 book groups in Houston last year and estimates that there are tens of thousands of them nationally.

Response to Reading Women, a Winnetka, Ill., bimonthly newsletter of book commentary and criticism by three veteran book-group members, indicates widespread interest as well. More than 3,000 people in 47 states subscribe to it.

Reading groups fill an intellectual and social void that many Americans find on the narrow professional tracks that follow a stimulating college environment, Ms. Long explains.

Long, who is writing a book about her study of book groups in Houston, says the phenomenon is little-studied because academics have traditionally considered book groups "trivial."

"Academics could not believe they [group members] actually discussed the books - but they really do," she says of comments from colleagues.

But book groups have a rich history.

Our Reading Club, in San Antonio, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Passed from generation to generation, it is a group of 30 affluent women who meet every Monday, taking turns making luncheon presentations as backgrounders for reading books. Throughout the years, detailed minutes of the club show subject matter has ranged from 19th-century gypsies to the Crusades, from Kipling to Rousseau.

Vacancies in the hard-core membership tend to be created by death and are snapped up quickly, explains Pat Hammond, a nationally known kitemaker and collector who has belonged to the club for 15 years and calls it "a way of life."

The Texas reading group comes straight out of the "self culture" movement at the turn of the century, explains Long.

"One of the fascinating things almost lost to history was the surge in membership at the turn of the last century," she says. "Those book groups often were the beginning groups of the women's progressive era." Movements to establish the Houston Library and women's restrooms at farmers markets in Texas started in book clubs of women with leisure time who were seeking meaningful social stimulation, Long says.

Even today, reading groups are predominantly women's groups, says Long. About 65 percent of those she has studied fall in this category, 30 percent are mixed, and 5 percent are men's groups.

Sandra Brown, a co-founder of Reading Women, sees the current book-group trend evolving from the 1970s encounter groups and the 1980s fitness obsession. Essentially "egocentric," those movements have now swung toward a "need to reach out," she says.

"Book groups have become the intellectual stimulation of the '90s, using fiction to provide the structure for your own self-awareness."

Whatever the reason, book groups seem to satisfy a wide range of needs.

"We didn't want it to be freshman English all over again where you try to top each other with deconstructionist theory," says Bill Weisberg, a Northern Virginia government contracts attorney who helped found a book group of six professional couples in 1990.

"Our group has as few rules and themes as possible. Half the fun is the tangents the conversations go off on, so it's just 10 to 12 people enjoying themselves rather than improving themselves with a capital 'I.' "

On the other hand, there are groups like Houston's Harpies, which prides itself on guerrilla-style literary debate. The unopinionated are not invited.

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