Vol. 1 No. 1
publication of the SAN FRANCISCO GREAT
The Great Books Foundation has announced that it will publish
a new adult series in 1997, terrific news for thousands of
discussion participants who have been reading the existing series
over and over again for more than twenty years. The new books
will appear as nine single-volume anthologies that include
additional contemporary selections, more women and minority
authors, poetry, and a list of recommended novels.
An added volume, How to Discuss a Book, will be sold in
bookstores as well as through GBF. It will explain shared
inquiry and the Great Books mission and programs, and will
provide contact information, a list of Great Books publications,
and recommendations for training.
The nine volumes are scheduled for release throughout the year
as part of an overall plan to expand and revitalize the adult
program. They will help us attract new and younger
people, according to GBF, and properly serve the
estimated 20,000 active group members, take advantage of the
recent proliferation of [non-GB] book discussion groups, SFGB
will have its own page, tied and combat the wrong but
prevalent image that Great Books is a stuffy and elite
program. GBF assures us the new readings will be selected
at no sacrifice of excellence or discussibility.
Allen Temple Baptist Church, one of the countrys great
religious bodies and a leading Oakland institution will
co-sponsor with GBSF a Great Books discussion this January 11 to
celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Junior. Five
thousand members strong, this predominantly black church has a
Hispanic ministry as well and a distinguished history of working
for interracial harmony. The church is led by Dr. J. Alfred
Smith, Pastor, assisted by his son, J. Alfred Smith, Jr.,
Called "A Gathering of Equals," the event is a
continuation of GBSFs contribution to the National
Endowment of the Humanities "national conversation
program." Its purpose is to bring citizens of all
backgrounds together in a discussion about American pluralism and
identity. The Oakland program will feature a discussion of Martin
Luther King Juniors essay, "A Letter from Birmingham
Jail" employing the Great Books "method of shared
inquiry." GBSF will furnish experienced leaders for an
anticipated ten discussion groups and will train an equal number
of co-leaders to be recruited by the church. A luncheon will
The church will manage the overall event, including
invitations and publicity. It will accommodate about 180
participants and be held at the churchs facilities, 8500 A
Street in East Oakland.
by Mark Scardina
As this newsletter goes to press, GBF and SFGB are going on
the internet. GBF's web address is www.greatbooks.org
and SFGB can be reached either there or at www.greatbooks-sf.com. Pay us a visit
using an online service, such as CompuServe or America Online, or an internet
Reading Matters is on the page. Information is
also posted or may be requested on any of these topics:
- Local Great Books Discussions
- Asilomar Weekend
- Ralston White Retreat
- Westminster Poetry Weekend
- Great Books Annual Picnic
- SF Museum of Modern Art Mini-Retreat
- Readings in each of the Series
In offering information about our groups and activities 24
hours a day, GB web pages not only should be useful to existing
members but should help to attract new ones. The internet is used
extensively in education and the sciences, areas from which we
have drawn members in the past.
Suggestions and contributions of material are invited. Please
e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Readers of this newsletter may be wondering what happened to
the final big event in the SFGB Council's program, A
Gathering of Equals. We postponed it until we can get a
better mix of participants. The planned celebration of Martin
Luther King Junior's birthday with Allen Temple Baptist Church,
reported above, is aimed at remedying this deficiency.
The purpose of the National Endowment for the Humanities in
calling for a national conversation, was to bring
together Americans of diverse backgrounds to talk about what we
have in common. SFGB's project was to do this through discussing
great documents in the country's history using the Great Books
method of shared inquiry.. At the first session, held
at the Commonwealth Club of California and at Chevron's
headquarters, in San Francisco, in July 1995, the 153
participants included 20 individuals of identifiable racial or
ethnic minorities. The second session, at the World Affairs
Council of Northern California, also in San Francisco, in August,
included only one such individual among a total of 68. Ten had
registered and paid the fee by mail but did not attend. In
advance of both sessions, extensive media efforts and individual
contacts had been directed at achieving diverse participation.
The two other Great Books cities in the NEH grant achieved a
better variety. Chicago did this through an arrangement with a
major downtown library and intensive one-to-one recruitment.
Philadelphia structured their program around a set of minority
celebrity intellectuals most notably, Cornel West
who at least guaranteed the interest of their own fans.
Reportedly, the Chicago meetings were conducted in the Great
Books spirit of shared inquiry and met GB standards for a good
discussion. On the other hand, the Philadelphia program was
panned in a Wall Street Journal op-ed as a soapbox
for the views of these celebrities rather than a gathering of
The San Francisco discussions were of high quality: The
Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the
United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Martin
Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Maya
Angelou's story, High School Graduation, from I
Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and The Federalist No. 10 were
explored with the assistance of SFGB-trained leaders.
SFGB's Wallis Leslie attacked poetry lovers with a water
cannon July 20 at Westminster Retreat House, Alamo, California.
Fire, if you can call it that, was returned quickly by a dozen
water pistols ranging from the highly technical, multi-colored,
top reservoir type, to the simplest of hollow plastic day-glo
pistols. Laura Rubin had left a pile nearby just in case
something like this happened. It was she, after all, who had
suggested the theme of the afternoon session, Poems of War
and Conflict. Leslie, however, was not deterred.
The battle began just after an afternoon discussion as readers
headed for the swimming pool or study sites under the trees.
Leslie had taken up station next to a water tap out front and
stood with a bucket full and the tip of a large green wand
immersed in it. The look in her eyes was unmistakable. Obviously,
someone had argued too long for an incorrect interpretation of
some war poem she liked. The Shield of Achilles, by
W. H. Auden? Henry Reed's Naming of Parts? Perhaps it
was Fury of Bombardment, by Richard Eberhart -- that
would make sense. Or, maybe she was still upset from a misreading
of John Keats's The Eve of St. Agnes during
the morning session. Anyway, someone was going to pay.
And pay they did, as the battle surged from the front yard
over to the swimming pool and well into it.
In mid-battle, the evening's guest speaker, the poet Susan
Woolridge, arrived at the edge of the pool in full summer dress
and took a blast. Nothing would do but for her to jump into the
pool and start after the offending Leslie.
Susan's presentation that evening was a departure from past
speakers at Poetry Weekend. Instead of reading and discussing her
poetry, she read from her new how-to-do-it book, poemcrazy.
She took the forty-odd participants through exercises
designed to help them start writing.
Proof of Susan's effectiveness was this haiku by your editor:
I am a ball
Rolling Slowly Up the Stairs
For special effect, by the way, this work was read aloud by
the author through the moving blades of an electric fan that
happened to be nearby. (It was hot that evening in Alamo).
Should you need more proof, study this piece by Council member
and Asilomar committee chairman, Brent Browning:
My real name is Escape from Boredom,
No price too high.
Yesterday my name was Iron Man
with an Agenda.
Today my name is Spitwad well,
boys will be boys.
Tomorrow my name will be Gadfly
or perhaps Old-and-part-of-the-problem.
Secretly I know my name is Opinion
with an attitude.
My name once was Worm. (I don't
do worm anymore.)
by Vince Scardina
Trying to reach more adults with busy careers and young
families, SFBG is testing the idea of mini-retreats,
one-day book discussion events that will take place in each
county three or four times a year. The idea, according to
organizer Vince Scardina, is to tie interesting venues with
The first event is scheduled for Saturday, January 27, at
Pacific Telesis in Yerba Buena Center. Two Nineteenth Century
short novels will be discussed, Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome and
Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Following the discussions,
participants will tour the new San Francisco Museum of Modern
Art, in particular the exhibit From Matisse to
A flier will be ready in October, says event chair Fiona
Humphrey, and GBers are encouraged to help spread the word to new
For further information, Fiona can be reached evenings at
(415)928-2028 and Vince days at (415)585-5475.
GBF has called upon the metropolitan Chicago council to work
with the foundation on ideas for starting new Great Books
discussion groups. The Chicago council will assist GBF with five
initiatives: recruiting Junior Great Books leaders to start adult
groups; persuading libraries to host Great Books groups;
assisting corporations to build Great Books discussions into
staff development programs; holding GBF-sponsored training
events; and developing strategic alliances with such
organizations as elder hostels, book group associations,
humanities councils, and cultural networks.
Kemper Insurance recently installed a Great Books program
inside the company with the help of GBF. The Kemper program will
serve as a model for further GBF-Chicago work with corporations.
The GBF-Chicago collaboration is one element of a new
three-year marketing plan to reinvigorate and expand the adult
Great Books program nationally. Other elements include the new
book series and the internet site discussed above, improved
support to metropolitan Great Books councils, and a program to
celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Great Books Foundation.
Copies of the three-year plan are available at cost from Laura
Holt Rubin (see below).
In the first of a series of visits to local Bay Area
discussion groups, your editor took his mother to sit in on Roy
Harvey's monthly meeting at the lovely old Falkirk Mansion in San
Rafael. The selection was What is War, from On
War, by Karl von Clausewitz (GBF Third Series, Volume 2).
Present were six individuals, normal for this group, and Roy
began by turning to the text and working with the group to
achieve clarification of several difficult passages. After an
hour of this, he led the group in examining some of the questions
about the selection in the separate study guide. Sure enough, by
then it was possible to get a handle on those questions, which
would have been daunting at the outset.
I left the meeting with a much better understanding of the
passage, and I enjoyed the time. There were two surprises: first,
they stopped after an hour-and-a-half, just when I thought things
were really rolling, and causing me an acute case of discussus
interruptus (seasoned Great Bookers will know how that
feels); and second, and more significant, they permitted outside
references, both textual and personal. Asked later about this,
Roy told me that it is his policy to allow such references but to
keep them short, and to the point, that is, directly
related to the text. He believes this is within the approved
Great Books method, and showed me evidence of this in the
questions provided by the Great Books Foundation that accompanied
the Clausewitz selection: one question refers to the Geneva
Convention, and another to the atom bomb. Neither could have been
familiar to Clausewitz.
Roy told me that he also permits digressions from time to time
just not to discourage someone from participation. He keeps these
My mom and I enjoyed the discussion and the setting, and
as usual I understood the selection many times
better after the meeting than I had going in.
In contrast to Roy's group, for six years I have taken part in
the Berkeley group run by Morris Berger. Morris is a stickler for
the no outside references rule, I am sure one of the
strictest in the country. Some evenings, you so much as breathe
funny and he's on your case, but others he's a little more laid
back. The discussion is for two hours, and only interpretation is
allowed, no evaluation. For those who wish to stay on after the
two hours, the rules are off.
Most of us would probably prefer an approach somewhere between
the high-tension intellectual challenge of Morris's group and the
more relaxed but still productive atmosphere of Roy's. The moral
of this story is, if you don't like one group, try
We Need Leaders!
Ever thought about leading at a Great Books
If you'd like to consider it, please call Tom Cox at
(415)892-2310 or Barbara McConnell at (707)829-5643.
Several day-long events will be added to the full SFGB
schedule of activities during the coming year to draw new
participants, according to Erma Browning, Council president.
First of these is the event set for January at Pacific Telesis
(see story above). Such days will follow in other Bay Area
As SFGB launches these new events, the organization will
continue to sponsor its regular schedule of activities throughout
the year. Thirty-some book discussion groups have met bi-weekly
or monthly at sites around the Bay for many years, and will
continue to do so. Most, but not all, of these work from GBF's five-year series of
adult readings. They will be certain to take an interest in the
new series promised by GBF for release during 1997 (see story
Four annual events that have become traditions will be held
again at the same sites as last year. The first of these is the
autumn weekend at the Ralston
White mansion on Mt. Tamalpais where a long novel is
discussed. This November's book is Leo Tolstoy's War and
Peace. For several years this limited-space event has sold
out within days of its May announcement and 1996 was no
Next is the spring weekend at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, which features four
two-hour discussions: a selection of poetry, a short novel, a
long essay, and a play. There is plenty of room at this beautiful
resort to accommodate all who will apply within a reasonable time
of the January announcement.
The SFGB Annual Meeting,
open to all comers, will take place in June at the Cheese Factory
in northern Marin County. When business is completed, there is
always a book discussion, typically of a short novel or a play
that combines humor with serious thematic material.
The last event, in July, is Poetry
Weekend at Westminster House, Alamo (three two-hour
discussions: a classic poet, a modern poet or a theme, and a
All of these events will be announced in separate mailings.
For a roster of local groups or other information, call Laura
Holt Rubin, (510)528-3626.
In case you hadn't noticed, the San Francisco Great Books
Council initiates a newsletter with this issue. For the year
1996-97, two issues are planned, this one -- the bulk of which
are being mailed out with the President's annual letter -- and
one that will accompany SFGB's January notice about the Asilomar
event. The press run is 1,600. Letters on any topic related to
the Great Books movement or to reading and discussion are
invited, as are ideas for articles that readers might like to
submit or have us write. Some of the most interesting,
significant, or funny letters will be published, at the Editor's
discretion. E-mail is the desired method of submission. All
letters with an e-mail return address will be answered and others
as time permits.
SAN FRANCISCO GREAT BOOKS COUNCIL
Erma Browning, President;
Tom Cox, Vice President;
Duke Edwards, Secretary;
Lee Jordan, Treasurer;
Laura Holt Rubin, Coordinator -- (510)528-3626.
Reading Matters - Rick
White, Editor 501 Santa Barbara Road Berkeley, CA 94707 e-mail email@example.com