Shortly after 9 on a rainy March morning, two dozen avid readers gather in the lounge of a remote country hotel in the north of England for an unusual event - a four-day book discussion group, organized by a British tour company. As participants settle into plush chairs, some carry books. Others flip through notebooks filled with jottings about the 12 titles on their reading list, selected by a retired librarian and centering on the theme of family relationships.
Although most members of the group live in England, two have come from Holland and one from the United States, giving a cross-cultural perspective to the discussions.
This year's chosen authors also bring a global view. In addition to British writers Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks, and Bernice Rubens, the list includes Ireland's William Trevor, South Africa's Nadine Gordimer and Pamela Jooste, India's Salman Rushdie, Australia's Marele Day, and the Chinese memoirist Adeline Yen Mah, author of "Falling Leaves," who now lives in the US.
Beginning with George Eliot's 1861 classic, "Silas Marner," and ending with Rushdie's award-winning 1981 novel, "Midnight's Children," the group explores timeless - and timely - literary themes of familial love, desertion, and betrayal. They consider the fragility and strength of marriage in the face of tragedy, and the success of children despite years of parental neglect and hostility.
Session by session, the group works its way down the reading list. Opinions vary widely, and discussions get intense.
"It's a waste of 4.99 - it's rubbish," sputters one man, explaining why he dislikes a particular book. Others rush to defend the work. In the process, group members gain new insight into character, plot, and writing style. Many also experience a renewed admiration for the power of the printed word to stimulate thought.
No wonder this kind of literary forum is enjoying unprecedented popularity. One woman here has been coming to this annual event for 18 years. In London, a British publisher estimates that 50,000 reading groups exist in England alone. Several times that number dot the US.
As the morning and evening discussions continued in this lush valley in the Peak District, books made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. Last Thursday, Stephen King announced that his latest book, "Riding the Bullet," will be published exclusively on the Internet. Beginning this week, buyers can pay $2.50 to download his 66-page tale to read on a computer or a hand-held e-book device.
It's the kind of "pulpless" publishing spawned by the electronic revolution that raises questions about the possible demise of traditional publishers. One Microsoft executive estimates that by 2020, 90 percent of books will be electronic.
Yet despite uncertainties about the future form of the printed word, these are promising times for books. The enormously popular Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are giving a whole generation of children a new love for literature. As young readers wait impatiently for the fourth in the Potter series to appear this spring, some are turning off the TV and finding pleasure in other books as well. They may be the reading-group members of the future.
In addition, last Friday, as participants in this British book group packed their bags (and their books) to return home, readers in more than 35 countries were celebrating World Book Day. This yearly event, designated by UNESCO to celebrate books and reading, provides many children with books of their own.
Five years from now, will participants in this book-discussion week download the 12 books on their reading list into a portable e-book? Perhaps. For anyone who enjoys the tactile pleasure of books - the feel of paper, the act of turning pages, the design of dust jackets - that is not necessarily an appealing prospect.
Yet on the final morning of the book group, a reassuring idea prevails. When someone asks, "What is a good book?" one man answers this way: "A good book is whatever gives a reader enjoyment." That simple definition may not satisfy literary purists or intellectuals. But it helps to explain, at the most basic level, the enduring appeal of words strung together in sentences and paragraphs to tell stories and histories, and to express new ideas.
It will take more than pulpless publishing to undo that timeless appeal.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society