Pen's Pals: A Plunge Into Literature and London's Cold Ponds

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Toby Brothers doing a little winter swimming in Adirondack Park.
Toby Brothers doing a little winter swimming in Adirondack Park. (A. MacKenzie)

Imagine reading a classic novel like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and discussing it with people from around the world. Or reading an epic poem like The Odyssey by Homer, and then leading a group trip to the location that inspired the tale.

That’s what Toby Brothers, founder of The London Literary Salon, does for a living.

Toby Brothers on an adventure in Pais.
Toby Brothers on an adventure in Pais. (J. Graffagna)

Toby, who I met two decades ago while she was teaching literature at my alma mater, The Athenian School, left the East Bay with her husband and child in 2003. The family first moved to Paris, where she initially started hosting salons before moving to Northern London, where she lives now.

When she’s not diving into books, Toby regularly takes morning plunges into the ponds at Hampstead Heath near her new home, a custom amongst community members.

This week we discuss life in the United Kingdom, how literature can be used to find common connections with people around the world, and how it feels to develop new bonds with people while diving into freezing bodies of water.

Read the transcript

Below are lightly edited excerpts of my conversation with Toby Brothers

HARSHAW: Briefly, bring me in to what you do on a day to day basis.  

BROTHERS:   I’m the founder and the director of the London Literary Salon, and I actually started this in Paris. The salon is sort of an experiment in education, using great literature as a platform for understanding ourselves and our relationship to each other more profoundly. 

I’ve always loved teaching, but I couldn’t teach when I first moved to France, so the first couple of months I was really at loose ends. I was at a gathering, and somebody had asked me what I did in my life before coming to France. I started talking about teaching at Athenian and teaching Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”

The people that I was speaking to, one of them said, “You should do like a book club or something,” and I was like, “ummm,” and she said, “No, really, you should think about running a study. “

At that party, a couple different people said, I’d love it if you do this. I would love to join. And about six or eight weeks later, I had a group of eight people and we were reading “Beloved” for five weeks. And when we finished, they said, okay, what are we going to do next? And that’s how the salon started. 

Thank you, Toni Morrison. 

HARSHAW: “Thank you, Toni Morrison” is actually the name of everything that I want to do from now on.



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