World Book defines a salon as “a gathering of fashionable people.”
“During the 1700s wealthy Parisians built townhouses with elegantly decorated salons. The hostess usually invited writers, philosophers, politicians and aristocrats. These French salons became famous for their brilliant conversation.”
While the salon perished along with the idle bourgeoisie after the French Revolution, it has seen a revival in the form of book clubs. When the ultimate salonniere — Oprah — led the charge to rejuvenate the book club into a televised version, her impact turned the once solitary experience of reading into a vibrant social activity, and book clubs flourished in the living rooms of North America. Literary culture became popular culture.
In the early twentieth century, the book club was an opportunity for women who were denied formal education to engage in literature groups that helped them to escape the isolation of domesticity. But in our hectic modern lives, reading a prescribed book is just another item on the to-do list, and titles like How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, although tongue in cheek, begin to take on serious meaning.
In the Maclean’s article “The busy woman’s anti-book club”, Sarah Lazarovich argues that the book club has become a “tyrannical time suck” for busy women. Lazorovic formed a Ladies Short-Form Media Auxiliary where members gathered around a laptop to share Youtube videos, MP3 clips, and Google searches, which generated free-flowing discussion that required little preparation.
Similarly, members of Classic Album Sundays gather in pubs to listen to an entire album and discuss it over pints. Listening to an entire album takes a little over an hour, surely less of a commitment than reading Anna Karenina, the first of Oprah’s picks.
Another take on the traditional book club is The Philosopher’s Table, a hybrid of a supper club and a graduate seminar. Guests are invited to the host’s home, assigned a thematic dish, and share music, philosophy, and traditional cuisine from a particular culture. Choose a philosophical topic and it comes matched with a dinner menu, music, and discussion questions. Enjoy lamb meatballs and tzatziki, and the simple pleasure of life in Epicurus’s Greek garden. In this version of a salon you get music, social connection, and nourishment for mind and body. Multi-tasking at its best.
Foodies who like to talk about their culinary creations can join one of Winnipeg Public Library’s two Cook by the Book Clubs (meeting at Osborne or Westwood). Members are invited to choose a recipe from selected cookbooks and share the outcome with the group. Results are delicious, entertaining, and inspiring!
And, if a conventional book club still sounds good to you, WPL offers many to choose from.
In a world with little time and less social contact, these forms of the 21 st century literary salon are an opportuntiy to meet with like-minded souls at your library, pub, coffee shop, or living room, and rekindle the cultural conversation.