So what exactly is a literary salon?

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Misplaced your love of literature somewhere along the line? Rediscover it this year with a “spa for the mind”


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An array of books at the London Literary Salon
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Getting underneath the best literature: Toby Brothers
Getting underneath the best literature: Californian Toby Brothers

Teaching and learning should be an opportunity for great generosity – not an intellectual pissing contest.

With that in mind, what then is a literary “salon”? The answer is actually quite simple: it’s an informal study of a particular work of literature, either as a single intensive session or longer weekly series of meetings. Some even describe the experience as “a spa for the mind”. But mostly it’s where we laugh, express our frustrations, query meaning and purpose, and discover great depth in the language and vision of the writer.

My London Literary Salon actually started in Paris, back in 2004, where my partner and I had moved rather abruptly from California. I found myself at a loose end: after working as a mentor teacher and counsellor and unable to find a job teaching in the French system, I was meeting other English-speaking adults who, while loving la vie Parisien, were looking for further intellectual stimulation.

After a particularly heady party, the idea of the salon burst forward. I ran my first study in our apartment with a group of eight women on Beloved by Toni Morrison, a wrenching, complex book with a multi-level narrative. At the end of our five-week study, everyone said, “What’s next?” And so the salon began.

We moved here in 2008. Now based on Falkland Road in Kentish Town, I hope the salon brings to the surface the deepest questions about who we are — and without offering answers, help us understand life’s mysteries. What, for example, does it mean to be human, in different times or different skin, various genders and a spectrum of struggles?

Relaxed: inside the salon
Relaxed: inside the salon

I believe — with the passion of a southern minister that is part of my inheritance — that the best learning is not hierarchical but shared discovery. But a teacher or facilitator can only guide; in a room full of learners you have a vast array of experiences and world views, all of which can enrich the learning experience. This is the basis of the salon: adults that join may be highly educated or not, but all have ideas and insights that expand our study.

We can also discuss issues that are harder to bring up in casual conversation. Take racism and identity, for example: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man gives us an (apparently) objective platform to get inside the skin of one who is positioned as other – and glimpse how the world looks from there.

Then there is the writing: to grapple with the linguistic pyrotechnics of James Joyce — to enter into his exploration of the body, mind and street-life, to sit in awe of his allusions, musicality and thematic developments – is to expand the possibilities of the written word. To do this with a group of other curious readers who are also struggling allows each to enrich their own understanding many fold.

As facilitator I offer historical context, a biography of the writer, literary criticism, and other areas that the literature engages: the workhouses and debtors prisons of Dickens’ time, for example, or breakdown of Southern aristocracy in Faulkner’s world. The fees are for the physical and metaphorical space provided, the background and discussion notes and the atmosphere of flexibility combined with clear purpose and direction. It is also my responsibility to ensure a balance in the discussion and I do redirect when necessary. I try to keep the salons affordable to encourage a diverse group of participants.

But most of all? I celebrate the variety of participants who choose the Salon: I have seen friendships and relationships grow, and people come to a greater understanding of themselves and others. Reading literature does not need to be an isolating experience: through the salon and other local, grassroots book clubs (MeetUp, for example), there are authentic communities forming from the energy we have for the pure exploration of ideas — and how that connects us deeply.

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Upcoming sessions at the London Literary Salon include Ulysses by James Joyce (20 week study, £300), Black Voices in American Literature (12 week study through City Lit, £98) and The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot (One meeting intensive, £35). For more info head here or email Toby on litsalon@gmail.com

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  • Fiona

    So, an expensive book club by any other name?

    • CarolS

      No it’s not, because Toby really does offer a road into richer enjoyment and broader understanding of the books. She facilitates this with her developed inter-personal skills and gentle leadership. I belong to an excellent book group where we read classy literature but at the Literary Salon we get. as she writes above, a much deeper opportunity to explore, to gain insights into the work(s) on offer, because of the research she has done and the materials (books, photos, print outs etc) on offer.. but especially because of Toby herself. She is a teacher. We are stretched beyond book group discussion experience – it can be a struggle eg with James Joyce, but what a worthwhile life enhancing one. My experience of the Ulysses classes became pure pleasure & my husband and I took our summer holiday in beautiful Ireland. My only problem is with the term ‘Salon’ that to a cynical British ear can seem pretentious. These ‘classes’ are not.

      • Leah Jewett

        As someone who has enjoyed lots of Toby’s Salons, I’d say they are in-depth but informal, seminar-like discussions. For several hours you sit there and delve into ideas, voice your reactions, be inspired by or disagree with other people’s viewpoints — all the while, Toby guides and structures the threads of conversation with her own questions and observations. OK, it’s hard to describe, but it’s a rewarding, thought-provoking way to tackle a book (especially one as daunting as Ulysses), both reading it in on your own and then coming together with a group of interesting, like-minded people to talk it through casually, analytically. I used to come home after a Salon incredibly gratified! No question that, yes, as with a seminar, it’s worth paying for.

    • Julia Leonard

      It’s more like a intensive class but in a relaxed setting. The joy is grappling with difficult works with others and finding new meaning in the words (and life). I’ve done many salons with Toby and have always left energised and curious to know and read more. Toby’s gift — and it is a prodigious one — is that she guides deftly, sharing her knowledge but allowing the group to push and pull and explore on it’s own.

  • I Ramsey

    Not at all, Fiona. A year after stumbling upon Toby’s salons, I can only say that they are less book club, more glittering literary seminar – clever and quirky and cool, but kind and welcoming and considerate too. They’re an adventure for any serious reader: vivid voyages into, through and beyond some of the most challenging yet rewarding pieces of world literature. Expensive? Seven to 10 quid an hour for some of the keenest, quickest thinking outside academia on, say, Ulysses or To the Lighthouse or The Sound and the Fury is a gift. PLUS the wine is gorgeous too. Join us!

  • Andy

    Or a bargain adult ed course?

    • Mishima

      No, because interactive not inactive.

  • Denise Larking Coste

    Being a member of the original Parisian Salon, I think that from the other responses posted here, Fiona will have now understood what it’s all about! Certainly nothing to do with a book club, and everything to do with study. And even personal development. And a bargain at the price!

  • Martin

    Are there any drinks?

    • Toby Brothers

      Salon tradition is that we all bring something to share–sometimes a full table, sometimes just coffee and tea–but some nice wines have been quaffed and when we get really creative, occasionally the offerings match the writer or the work we are studying…innards, or Burgundy for example, with Ulysses.

  • Anthony

    “The fees are for the physical and metaphorical space provided”, expensive stuff, that metaphorical space, at least £50 pound a metre in on-trend “k-Town” I hear.

  • Noel Brakenhoff

    If I lived in London I would sign up immediately. Unfortunately I live in the U.S. Knowing Toby I can’t think of a more exciting experience than to participate in one of her Salons

  • Chloe

    Is there a discounted rate for people on a low income? I don’t think studying great literature is necessarily the preserve of the middle or upper classes, but simply cannot afford the £300 for the course.

    • Toby Brothers

      Hello Chloe– There are a few subsidized places available on each course; please email me directly (toby@litsalon.co.uk) to inquire about availability and details…and I whole-heartedly agree with you: the study of great literature–or anything-should be available to all–and our conversations benefit from the diversity of life experiences and perspectives. Thank you for making this point.

  • Dave Frey

    I’ve been in many book groups, and in many of Toby’s Paris salons.

    What I feel compelled to add is that Toby has a singular gift for meeting people where they are — that alone would kick the salons out of the “expensive book club” club.

  • Lizzy

    Ditto on Dave’s comment. A fab place for academic and non-academic readers to meet on an equal footing.