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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.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

“I think the reason is that men, even in this Iron John age, are not willing to discuss their feelings,” she said. “In these groups, you get very personal with what a book means to you, and you have to build up a lot of trust with the other members.”

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Slezak says women’s predominance in book clubs hearkens back to the old university art clubs in the early part of the century, where professors’ spouses gathered to discuss literature, dance, art and architecture.

A modern version of that legacy is typified by Edmiston and Kelley’s Westside reading group, which was started by attorneys Amy Pucker, a Woodland Hills resident, and Santa Monica resident Rachelle Bin in 1991.

The 12 women in the club insist they have no feminist or political ax to grind. The focus remains on superior literature, ranging from contemporary nonfiction to romantic classics.

The group has read more than two dozen books including “This Boy’s Life” by Tobias Wolf, “Temple of My Familiar” by Alice Walker and “Geek Love” by Kathryn Dunn.

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The members strive to read one book a month, and, to save money, often choose a title after a work comes out in paperback.

Some of the women say their spouses have expressed an interest in joining, but for now the group remains a women’s-only group, by choice. A group member, Yvette Sally, said one husband wanted in so badly that, perhaps partly in jest, he showed up at a meeting in drag only to be unceremoniously booted.

“Men would definitely change the dynamics,” Pucker said.

Though many book clubs create their own informal rules, Dianne Leslie, book group coordinator for Dutton’s Brentwood Books, recommends some crucial ingredients.

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Book choices should have complex and arguable themes and plots, unlike mass-market page-turners and action thrillers.

“Get books for the living room, not the bedroom,” Leslie said.

Members should be good listeners, tolerant and analytical. Participants must be willing to discuss their own experiences and remain interested in others.

And, above all, members should read their books on a timely basis.

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“I once had a couple of men come to a group without reading the book and they kept offering their opinions,” said Leslie. “They should have stayed up all night, if that’s what it took to finish. You have to for the benefit of the group.”

Some observers say the most explosive and interesting discussions occur when readers come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Although many groups try to reach out and link up with readers of diverse backgrounds, it can be difficult to do so.

“We would very much like to have a different racial mix, to find black and Latino couples, but none of us know anyone to bring them in,” said Isabel Kibel, a Brentwood resident who started a Westside couples reading group eight years ago. “We’re stuck in the same socioeconomic place--we’re very homogenous. But we are still looking.”

Though the lack of heterogeneity may seem confining to some, most agree that participating in a book discussion can be liberating.

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Jenny Ladefoged, a 62-year-old Hollywood Hills resident, started a church reading group about two years ago. The clique of 14 women of Saint Michael’s and All Angels Episcopal Church in Studio City read six books a year and range in age from 20 to 62. About half of the books involve religious themes.

“We . . . go deeper into religious themes,” Ladefoged said. “We can talk about God (among members), which you don’t usually do in church, and can put out ideas that would be scary in other places.”

Others view book groups as the most viable means of escaping the crushing anonymity of Los Angeles.

“There are just so many people in L.A. who have no other way of meeting people,” said Tony Kiewel, an events planner for Barnes & Noble in Marina del Rey. “Some are getting sick of being in hiding. These groups bring people together from the area that (they) would never have met previously and provide an exposure to books they would never have thought of reading.”

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Book club facilitator Palarz has an even more ambitious outlook. She remains convinced such discussion groups can bridge the gap between communities in Los Angeles.

“It would be an idealistic way to bring together a mixture of economic groups and cultures through the discussions of books,” said Palarz. She plans to approach the city library system about forming reading groups at each branch that would in turn visit other areas of the city for discussions. “It would be an attempt to find things in common, to weave people closer and define their commonalities through literature.”

Whatever social benefits there may be, many club participants simply enjoy the diversion.

After a 10-hour day of prosecuting such crimes as assault, child molestation, stalking and elderly abuse, attorney Edmiston usually returns home feeling like a zombie.

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But instead of zoning out in front of the TV, Edmiston employs a more effective means of mental relief.

“Being a member in the group gives me an incentive to read, and provides an escape from the harsh realities that I see every day,” she said. “As a trial lawyer, I’m very focused, logical and pragmatic. By reading great literature, I also get to use the left, creative, fantasy side of my brain.”

READING LIST

The 10 most popular reading club books, according to Ellen Slezak, author of “The Book Group Book.”

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1) The House of the Spirits

Isabel Allende

2) Beloved

Toni Morrison

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3) Crossing to Safety

Wallace Stegner

4) The Road From Coorain

Jill Ker Conway

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5) Life and Death in Shanghai

Nien Chang

6) Stones for Ibarra

Harriet Doerr

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7) Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert

8) Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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9) Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy

10) Memoirs of Hadrian

Marguerite Yourcenar

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