Vol. 10 No. 1
by Kathleen Conneely, Chair
Time for our annual summer triple treat—picnic in the Berkeley Hills, short annual meeting and lively book discussion!
Date: Sunday, June 12, 2005
Time: 12 Noon to 3 PM
Locale: Tilden Park, Padre Picnic Area
For the reading, the Picnic committee has chosen the much heralded NY Times bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. The paperback version is published by Random House, costs $13.95, and is available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, etc. (343 pp but a fast read!)
The STORY: Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden western classics. Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression. The girls in Azar Nafisi’s living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov. In this extraordinary memoir, their stories become intertwined with the ones they are reading. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny and a celebration of the liberating power of literature.
PICNIC ETIQUETTE: It’s potluck. Please bring your own food and beverage, a dish to share with four other people, utensils, paper plates and a tablecloth if desired. Barbeque grills will be available. The wise will bring a wide-brimmed sun hat and a folding chair.
Padre Picnic Area is on South Park Drive in Tilden Park. From North Berkeley, turn off Wildcat Canyon at the Botanic Garden and drive up the hill about one-half mile. Or, from the south, take Highway 24 to Fish Ranch Road (E. of the tunnel), up Fish Ranch to Claremont/Grizzly Peak intersection, right 1.4 miles to South Park Drive. Padre is about ½ mile down.
Picnic Committee members are Rob Calvert, Gary Geltemeyer, Dorothy Janisizian, Bob McConnell, Vince Scardina, Tom and Jan Vargo and our Consultant Tom Cox.
Brent Browning -- mountain man, craftsman, musician, anesthesiologist, and husband of Erma Browning -- will be elected president of the San Francisco Great Books Council at its June 12 annual meeting/picnic barring an unanticipated grass roots uprising. His running mate is Kay White, currently leader trainer. Usually the president serves two one-year terms and is succeeded by the vice president. Brent has stepped down from his long-time position of Asilomar chair, to be succeeded by Barbara McConnell (see story below). Kay has not said whether she will shed the leader trainer portfolio.
Secretary Gary Geltemeyer and Treasurer Grace Dennison will stay on, as will the remainder of the executive committee. Ted and Joanna Kraus, and Paul and Lucy Ortega have joined the committee since the last annual meeting and are expected to be confirmed by vote of those attending the June 12 meeting. Chuck Scarcliff has been appointed to an unlimited term as publisher of Reading Matters, as Rick White, after ten years in the position, is retiring.
by Rick White
As usual, perspicuous Great Books participants figured out the theme for this year’s spring conference at Asilomar. The theme committee, which it has never been proved is led by Brent Browning, made the challenge particularly difficult by instructing the book committee, also led by Browning, to assign for reading the 352-page essay Consilience, by the Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson. Few, if any, of the groups discussing the work could reach agreement on whether Wilson had made his case that ultimately all sciences would come together into one science resulting in a great enlightenment. In fact, few could agree that was his position; many felt that he had simply meant to draw attention to the fact that methodologies overlap and that there are striking similarities among diverse phenomena , suggesting there may be a common dynamic underlying them. Frequently (increasingly, he might say) one science helps to solve problems in another or in the humanities. He is not, this faction insists, claiming that everything will come together, but simply encouraging scientists to open their eyes to interdisciplinary opportunities for progress.
Under the rule against bringing in outside references, insufficient attention was given to the fact that Albert Einstein wasted many years searching for a “unified field theory” that would reconcile quantum mechanics with his theory of relativity and got nowhere. Wilson appears headed into the same cul-de-sac. He should, the theme committee wants us to conclude, “Get over it!”
Although the assigned play, Fences, was by August Wilson (no relation) the theme was not “famous writings by Wilsons.” The lead character is a black American who has never gotten over a belief that were it not for his race he could have been a great major league baseball player. This interferes with the rest of his life and that of his family and friends. In Cynthia Ozick’s novella The Shawl and its sequel Rosa, the lead character self-destructively obsesses for many decades over the death of her infant daughter at the hands of a concentration camp guard, imagining the child still to be alive and carrying on an epistolary correspondence with her.
In the interest of space, this space will not go into the overwhelming evidence that the assigned poetry also supports the conclusion this year’s theme was “Get over it!” In fact, there is a special irony in the theme, to wit: those who continue to deny there is a theme committee – individuals such as its apparent chairman, Dr. Browning -- should “get over it!”
I was miffed by Brian Mahoney’s apologia in the recent Reading Matters. He describes books as being either “first rate” or “second rate.” I am not aware that readers have ever authorized anyone to make these distinctions. Rather than focusing on the quality of a book, whatever that is, it just might be more fruitful to focus on subject matter. The subjects discussed in [Edward O. Wilson’s] book [Consilience] may not have been popular with many readers. A spicy novel – with sexual indiscretions, corrupt money dealings, intrigue, etc. – may just have been more interesting to more people.
by Chuck Scarcliff
Let’s see now — during the past few years at Asilomar, we’ve read and discussed a couple of plays (Death of a Salesman and Fences) about fathers and sons, a short story and novella (The Shawl and Rosa) about a mother and daughter, and one play (Hedda Gabler) about a daughter and (although deceased) her father. So what have we missed? A story of a son and a mother.
But we’re going to fix that at this year’s Long Novel Weekend. We will be discussing D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers on September 10th and 11th at Walker Creek Ranch in Marin County. This novel is, at least in large part, about the relationship between a young man, Paul Morel, and his mother. But the story is about much more than that. Sons and Lovers could be the first important novel written about life in England’s lower laboring class (a coal mining society), and is certainly Lawrence’s first major work. It is said to be semi-autobiographical, and probably it is.
If you’ve been to Walker Creek Ranch, no doubt you’re eager to return; if you’ve not been there, this is your chance to see what you’ve been missing. It is an ideal spot for seeing old friends, making new ones and discussing a truly great book. Over three discussions, each with a different leader, we’ll give the book the time it deserves. Your cost (not including the price of the book — $10.95 at your local bookstore) will be $140. We will use only the “Penguin 20th Century Classics” edition in our discussions.
To find out more about this year’s Long Novel Weekend call Chuck Scarcliff at (916) 428-4672 or get in touch by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Registrar is Mary Stuart (707)575-1984.
by Brent Browning
The defining characteristic of Shared Inquiry discussions is a disciplined control of outside references. Failure to impose some kind of control over the introduction of outside references, as a minimum, leads to the intermittent disruption of the focus of the discussion and may lead to a wandering conversation unrewarding to participants who have read the work carefully. Careful reading requires effort; effort unrewarded may lead some to cease making the effort. Still, the rejection of outside references amounts to the suppression of knowledge. I, for one, am not very comfortable with the suppression of knowledge.
The compromise position that many have been taking in recent years is the practice of allowing an evaluative period for the last 15 minutes of the discussion wherein participants are invited to bring in outside references, personal experiences, or anything else they wish to share. The leader, too, may express his views.
This accomplishes several things. It maintains the discipline of outside references but avoids the onus of the suppression of knowledge; the discussion becomes receptive to relevant outside references, but they are confined and cannot take over the discussion. It defuses the argument that the discussion has been blindsided by the omission of some bit of knowledge; the group will hear the omitted part and judge for themselves how important it is.
It also reinforces the sharing aspect of Shared Inquiry. By hearing more of what the reading meant to the group members, the ideas that were discussed are oriented to the world -- their meaning often clarified. In fact, the evaluative period at the end of the discussion can be, in some ways, the best part of the discussion.
I hasten to add that the practice of allowing an evaluative period at the end of the discussion is a controversial idea; it must always be at the leader’s discretion. He may decide that there simply is not enough time to do it or he may reject the practice for whatever reason. In any case, I have found it a useful practice.
by Louise DiMattio
Some of the most wonderful times I’ve had at Great Books events are not the events themselves but discussions before the event, in between sessions, and afterward. Frequently such discussions center around works we didn’t choose for the event and why we didn’t choose them. This is especially true of Long Novel Weekend, a unique and lively annual gathering organized by Bay Area Great Books volunteer coordinators and leaders.
A delicious meal is consumed. Dessert is served. Over a second cup of coffee, at a round table, we talk about the “also-rans.” These books may be too long or too short. They may have been discussed in small groups over the years. Books not chosen may be tantalizingly different in some way and I find myself wondering if we will have the courage to try one of these next year. Will we lose our registrants because of a risky selection? Will a selection be so popular that it will send us reeling, looking for additional leaders and additional space? How can we make exactly the right choice?
It seems that every scholar for the last three centuries has drawn up a list of the ten greatest novels. We have dipped into many of these already for Long Novel Weekend – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Leo Tolstoy’s The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, and Anna Karenina, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, William Faulkner’s Snopes, to name most of them. We went out on an interesting limb and discussed Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. I will never forget his fascinating characters.
But what about the ones not selected? Do I have the gumption to send out a flyer with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children on it? Is it a great book? Several at the table reassure me they would like to try it and it would be most “timely.” It may or may not turn out to be “great,” but we didn’t call the event “The Long Great Novel Weekend,” so why not give it a whirl? We have put forth and then decided against A Man Without Qualities countless times. We took a hard look at Laurence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Several of us even volunteered to take the time to read it and get back to the group. We decided it was “dated,” which is probably worse than “timely.”
In the end, it is with sweaty palms and swirling e-mails between and among the hardcore coffee drinkers that the decision is finally made. Casting your fate to the wind summarizes it. We review the list of books suggested by the dessert and coffee drinkers. There are often several that surface time and again as books we always wanted to read or books that we read when we were too young to grasp and, now that we are so wise, worldly and mature, we imagine we will finally understand. A book is selected, for better or worse. Getting together and discussing it proves to be as amazing as we hoped. The method of shared inquiry brings a richness to just about everything with revelations and insights we hadn’t even imagined.
But the real fun begins again, over coffee and ice cream, when we throw out suggestions and mull over the long list of “also-rans.” Titles are tossed into the ring. Reasons why the book will or won’t “work” for discussion are posited. Exciting, tantalizing challenges abound. The reading world is our oyster. Which one will be next?
Watch for a special mailing in August to poetry regulars announcing registration for the annual Poetry Weekend November 12-13 (Saturday and Sunday) at the Westminster Retreat in Alamo. Registrars are Oscar and Theda Firschein (650)854-3980.
by Theda Firschein
In "For Jessica, My Daughter,” Mark Strand, even in the ordinary act of living, cannot help but dwell on "the stars blazing in the immense arc of sky." He tells his daughter that when he feels the two of them drifting in the cosmos, he imagines a light in the fearful dark "that would not let us stray too far apart."
In "The Waking,” by Theodore Roethke, the poet seeks to live (wake) even with the ultimate expectation of death (sleep). "I feel my fate in what I cannot fear" and "learn by going where I have to go."
"Sonnet" by Elizabeth Bishop cries out for the balm of music to assuage the tired dead and herself.
In "Old New England," Derek Walcott enumerates what he sees as the historical evils of whalers, the defeat of the Indians, and of "Nam." He feels that "God is meek but keeps a whistling sword; his harpoon is the white lance of the church."
In his poem, "The Container for the Thing Contained,” Jack Gilbert asks why the familiarity of the naked female form still presents a mystery for the artist and the man. "The music seems familiar, but is not."
"Two" by Linda Hogan suggests that two lovers merge in the act, or sea, of love, and like rivers entering a larger sea, become greater than the sum of their parts. But when they emerge from the water "they stand at the elemental edge of difference."
by Rick White
Recognizing that discussion leaders are our most important resource after the books themselves, Kay and Rick White opened a bottle of the finest French champagne for those participating in leader training at the Whites’ Novato abode this March 5. Subsequent bottles of champagne, fine German beer, soft drinks, designer waters, and superb hors d’oeuvres capped training which emphasized discussion skills.
Poetry was used for practice in leading. Most notable was “Nude Descending a Staircase #2,” by X. J. Kennedy. It was inspired by an eponymous painting by Marcel Duchamp.
Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,
A gold of lemon, root and rind,
She shifts in sunlight down the stairs
With nothing on. Nor on her mind.
We spy beneath the banister
A constant thresh of thigh on thigh-
He lips imprint the swinging air
That parts to let her parts go by.
One-woman waterfall, she wears
Her slow descent like a long cape
And pausing, on the final stair
Collects her motions into shape.
Further recognizing the importance of leading, the ratio of instructors to students was more than one to one, exceeding the ratio at the most faculty-intense American university, Cal Tech, where reportedly it is three to one. Instructors were Brent Browning, Tom Cox, Kathleen Conneely, Brian Mahoney, Barbara McConnell, Rick White, and Kay White. Those sharpening their leading skills were Howard Crane, Elizabeth Hannon, Filomena Pacheco, Ruth Stotter, and Ted Kraus.
Persons interested in joining this coddled elite of truly committed and essential individuals should contact Kay White at Kayceveland@aol.com or call (415) 382-1927.
by Brian Mahoney
Can science make sense of everything? Edward O. Wilson thinks so. Consilience, hinges on the first two paragraphs of page 163, too long to quote here. Their crux is that biological inheritance determines human attitudes and behavior. He maintains that religious hatred, sexism, and war are universal traits of physically evolved human nature. Therefore, ultimately they can be corrected by physical science.
I will discuss three flawed examples that Wilson uses to support this thesis. For one, he states that the fear of snakes by humans is “epigenetically” determined -- that is, physically, although not necessarily genetically. In real life, however, boys are taught not to be afraid of snakes and girls are taught to fear them. Little boys use snakes to torment little girls. Not all humans are afraid of snakes. So how is this fear a physical characteristic of humans?
My second example is his discussion of incest avoidance as a universal human trait. He links incest taboos to an “epigenetic rule” – sort of like natural selection. There is no proof that behavior patterns, like the incest prohibition, are genetic, he writes, but he is convinced that they are nonetheless passed along physically, so he calls this “epigenetic” -- passed to the next generation, not by genes, but by some other not-yet-detected physical record. He fails to acknowledge facts about incest taboos that would weaken his argument. In every known society there is some taboo against sex with some relative under some set of conditions, but societal definitions of incest differ widely. In some societies what others might call incest has been accepted and encouraged. A taboo therefore would appear to be a cultural matter. But to Wilson, everything is physics.
My third example is the teenage soldiers of the Hutu and Tutsi. Wilson links the mass slaughter that took place in Rwanda in 1994 to over-population -- one epigenetic group fighting with another over scarce resources, the two groups divided by mental differences, not directly genetic, that ultimately will be explained by physical science. Wilson seems to think that experiences undergone by the members of a tribe are somehow recorded and passed along physically, even though not actually in the genes. Figure out the brain, treat it with good science, and hatred and war will go away. He does not mention that Hutu and Tutsi intermarried centuries ago and there is little or no genetic difference between them. Their tribal division was fostered by European colonial administrators, for their own reasons, who thereby set the stage for tragedy. Wilson excludes overwhelming evidence that famine in Africa is caused mostly by bad leadership – political, economic, and otherwise – international, colonial, and local.
In Wilson’s attack on the social sciences he provides not a shred of evidence that what he proposes would advance knowledge. It is his belief – his dogma, his faith -- that all knowledge ultimately will be gained through the physical sciences, that there is no other reality but the physical, that everything is physics. He tolerates religion only because unlike him many poor saps need it.
By now it must be clear I do not share Wilson’s optimism that science will be the potestas clavium of the future. I recommend he read Edith Hamilton, a writer who knew the distinction between truths of the mind (science) and truths of the spirit (the arts, religion, feeling) as they co-existed in ancient Greece. Since to doubt and to question is the way of the mind, the truths of the mind are constantly being modified. The truths of the spirit, on the other hand, are timeless. They are there for all to experience. A play by Euripides, a Bach fugue, the Book of Job, all are complete unto themselves.
It will be tragic if in the coming years physical scientists are established as the arbiters not only of the truths of science, but those of religion and art, and of feelings, such as justice, compassion, and love. Those who do not believe as they believe could be pushed out of their professions. Such a monolithic system of thought could amount to a living death. That would be one way to achieve what Wilson calls consilience.
With the rapidly developing knowledge of genetics it may become possible to use gene manipulation and elimination to modify the human species into a society ant-like in its conformity. That would be another way to achieve consilience.
by Barbara McConnell
As we left Asilomar this past year I was amazed and pleased to find the old magic was still there. We continue to meet at the most beautiful location on earth, we continue to have uplifting discussions on some truly fine literature, poetry and plays ( some of which we didn’t like too well until the discussion opened our eyes and thoughts), and we continue to gather together some of the most interesting people one could ever want to meet. However, our numbers are decreasing. There must be people “out there” who would enjoy the experience as much as we do, but don’t know about this magical weekend.
So, as the incoming Asilomar chair, I am interested in seeing what changes we need to make.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Chair , Asilomar Spring Conference
by Chuck Scarcliff
After ten years as either editor or publisher of Reading Matters, Rick White is retiring. Never mind that I have never published anything or even have a clear idea of what publishers do, I have agreed to assume the duties Rick has performed so well. Yet, I do have goals that I hope to achieve in my new job. The overriding one is that Reading Matters will continue to be the quality publication we all look forward to receiving.
I will be asking as many people as I can about the kinds of articles they value most, and features they would like to see in future issues. I hope you will send your thoughts and ideas to me. My e-mail address is email@example.com.
One possibility I will explore is regular coverage of local groups. I am not thinking of listing meeting dates, places, and reading selections, as that information is published elsewhere. Instead, I have in mind news and stories of groups. Some have been in continued existence for many years and I believe articles about their histories and how they have succeeded will be both interesting and useful. Of course, I will need information from group leaders and members.
Another feature could be a “Reader’s Forum” expressing different points of view on topics of interest to Great Books members. I don’t want to shy away from controversy, and will entertain comments of what is wrong as well as what is right with Great Books. Initially at least, I will propose topics or questions and invite your responses, but I hope also that you will let me know of issues that are important to you.
Reading Matters relies on contributions from you, the readers. In theory, this should be no problem. Good readers, as we all are, are often good writers who have things to say. By saying some of those things in Reading Matters you will help as we continue the strong tradition of this publication.
by Rick White
I’m delighted to have recruited Chuck Scarcliff as my successor in publishing Reading Matters. Ten years is enough for one person to control the major information source for such an influential organization. Let’s see what happens now!
Thanks to everyone who helped. Special thanks to all of the writers, to editors Mary Wood, followed by Paul and Lucy Ortega, to Jan and Tom Vargo, for production, and to Rob Calvert, webmaster, for the electronic edition. Kudos to all who helped at mailing parties and to all who forgave our mistakes.
I hope to continue my investigative reporting about the Asilomar theme committee. You will recall that Brent Browning denies connection with the committee, in fact denies its existence. How could he know that it doesn’t exist unless he is on it?
by Chuck Scarcliff
If we believe Jonathan Swift, and I can think of no reason not to, St. James Library in London was once the scene of a battle between the modern and the ancient books. It seems the moderns wanted to take over the spot at the height of Mount Parnassus where the ancient books had long resided. For their part, the ancients — books by Plato, Aristotle, Virgil and the like — weren’t willing to give their turf up without a fight. So, as it usually is in warfare, the ruckus went back and forth with nastiness exhibited by both sides. There was no clear-cut winner, but Swift’s sympathies were clearly with the ancients.
The issue at stake then remains unresolved now even among Great Books members. Some prefer the classics while others lean toward modern and contemporary writings. Once upon a time, Great Books reading lists were composed largely of the classics. According to some, an author should be dead at least fifty years before his (and it usually was his rather than her) works were eligible for Great Books discussion. Now recent writings are a staple of our reading diet. For example, the 50th Anniversary Series is heavily weighted toward modern writers and their works. But who should occupy the heights of Great Books Mount Parnassus?
What do you think? Do you look forward to discussing recent works in your local group, at Asilomar or at other Great Books events? Or are you happier reading and talking about classic writings? What merits or benefits do you see in one rather than the other? Does the classic vs. modern argument make any sense at all? Aren’t there more important criteria to employ in deciding what we should read and discuss?
Please let me hear from you. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my mailing address is Chuck Scarcliff, 7738 Quinby Way, Sacramento, CA 95823. I will use your responses for an article in the next issue.
The Praise of Folly, Erasmus
Don Quixote, Cervantes (new translation by Grossman)
Cato’s Letters, selection by Trenchard & Gordon
Catch 22, Joseph Heller
The Conversion of the Jews, Philip Roth
Gimpel the Fool, Isaac Singer
Registration of $480 covers books, accommodations in a dormitory room (single or double), meals, discussions, and access to campus facilities, as well as a film, group social activities, and a real Maine lobster bake. Participants who choose to stay off-campus can pay $180, which includes lunches and the lobster bake. Registration deadline is June 1. Add $25 after that date.
A deposit of $180 is required with application, the balance to be paid by check or cash at Colby. Books will be sent upon receipt of deposit. To register, complete the following information and send to Great Books Summer Institute, 824 Thomas Road, Lafayette Hill, PA 19444-1107. Direct questions to Tom or Carol Beam at 215-836-2380, fax 215-836-7158, or email email@example.com.
Rooming Near (if possible)____________________
( ) Need handicap access
( ) Need bedboard
( ) Prefer Leaderless Group
( ) Have previous Great Books Experience
( ) Am taking Boothbay Bus Trip
Enclose check payable to Great Books Summer Institute
June 12 (Sun) Picnic, Election of Officers. Tilden Park, Berkeley. Reading Lolita in Tehran. Kathleen Conneely (510) 530-2344.
Sept. 10-11 (Sat/Sun) Long Novel. D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers. Walker Creek Ranch, Marin County. Chuck Scarcliff, Chair (916) 428-4672. Mary Stuart, Registrar (707) 575-1984.
Nov. 12 -13 (Sat/Sun) Poetry Weekend. Westminster Retreat, Alamo, CA. Oscar and Theda Firschein, Registrars (650) 854-3980
Ted Kraus’s London “Theatre Tour for Thinkers” takes place twice this fall, October 10 – 15 and October 17 – 22. Each group is limited to twelve persons to ensure lively discussions and to fit cozily into the comfortable Bedford Hotel residents’ lounge, according to Ted, who is a member of the San Francisco Great Books Council executive committee. Eight plays will be seen and five discussions held during the five days. Three afternoons and one evening are free time. Amenities include sherry and cheese reception, goodbye dinner, a play at a “fringe venue,” and Ted’s updated restaurant tips. The cost is $1,550 per person double occupancy or $1,840 single. Roommates will be sought for singles. Extra days can be arranged for before and after tour. Call Ted at (925) 939-3658.