A Week in Books

Group Captain Corelli wins again
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WHEN THE Simpson emporium in Piccadilly opened in 1936, the shop's Bauhaus-cool interior was likened to "a transatlantic ocean liner". Waterstone's, which this week re-floated the building as a six-floor superstore, will be hoping that the name on the bows never reads "Titanic". On page 9, The Literator signals some of the possible icebergs ahead.

All the same, the inaugural bash on Monday revealed a richness of stock and elegance of style that the bewildered victims of Foyles, just two decades ago, might never have thought possible in a British bookshop. The fiction floor alone has 40,000 titles. Even with a champagne glass to hand, this looked less like a mere embarrassment of riches than a dizzying surfeit of stories. Cornucopian abundance - the first rule of grand retailing since the early Parisian department stores evoked by Emile Zola in Au Bonheur des Dames - can suffocate rather than liberate. Without information and debate - without some community of knowledge - endless choice can fray into simple confusion.

Many British readers have, quite spontaneously, found a way through the fiction maze by taking part in local reading groups. Everyone approves in principle, but no one has yet drawn a clear picture of how these work. Now Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey, from Roehampton Institute, have released their survey of 200 such groups. They will discuss it next week during a conference at Napier University, Edinburgh.

Bookshop buyers may be glad to learn that the groups' Top 10 selections round up many upmarket bestsellers. It goes without saying that Captain Corelli's Mandolin heads the list, followed in the chart by Angela's Ashes, The God of Small Things, Enduring Love, Cold Mountain, Alias Grace, Fugitive Pieces, Memoirs of a Geisha, Birdsong and Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Less predictably, 626 titles (out of 938 in all) appeared only once as local factors and passions bucked the PR trends.

Jenny Hartley reports that group members (two-thirds female, just like the fiction-buying public) enjoy strong, debatable issues, sympathetic central characters and a powerful sense of place. (This year's Orange Prize winner, Suzanne Berne's A Crime in the Neighbourhood, rang all of those bells.) It's a fascinating snapshot of the tastes that help readers to navigate among the towering stacks at a big Waterstone's or - if they're lucky - in a well-funded public library. And it reminded me of one book that you will not yet find in Piccadilly, or anywhere else: a comprehensive, Year 2000 update of Q D Leavis's pioneering 1932 study of novels and their consumers, Fiction and the Reading Public.