Vol. 1 No. 2
Spring 1997

Reading Matters


Interracial "Gathering of Equals" Surpasses All Expectations

At the largest single Great Books event in nearly fifty years, more than three hundred blacks and whites gathered at the Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland on the morning of January 11 to discuss Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Discussions took place in twenty small groups using the Great Books Method of Shared Inquiry.

The event capped the San Francisco Great Books Council’s program, "A Gathering of Equals," funded in 1995 by the National Endowment for the Humanities under its National Conversation initiative and suspended by the Council after two events when it found itself unable to achieve an adequate level of racial diversity.

"We finally got it right," said Rick White, conference organizer for SFGB, "because this was not our event, but a true partnership among three organizations. Allen Temple Baptist, a renowned East Oakland church, brought in half of the participants, provided a third of the leaders and ran the event – superbly. Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian provided a third of the leaders and half of the participants. We supplied the books, the method, a third of the leaders, a sprinkling of participants, and the Foundation’s top trainer."

The discussions were followed by lunch together, then a memorial service in the Allen Temple sanctuary in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The principal speaker was Reverend Allan Boesak, a famous South African civil rights leader now living in the United States and teaching at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

After the speech, Co-Pastor J. Alfred Smith Jr. of Allen Temple and Pastor William Rolland of Lafayette-Orinda called upon everyone present to link hands and led the assembly of nearly five hundred, black and white together, in singing "We Shall Overcome."

Evaluation Results Ratify Method

The January 11 event at Allen Temple Baptist Church tested the Great Books Method of Shared Inquiry in important ways. Most important of these was its utility as a means of facilitating interracial discussion.

The ninety-one participants completing an evaluation gave the method an average of 8.5 points on a ten-point scale – this in spite of the fact that two/thirds of the leaders had never led a Great Books discussion before. There were nineteen perfect 10s. A great many participants made written comments exalting both the method and the quality and excitement of the discussions. Only three individuals expressed strong reservations about the method.

Asilomar Program Announced
Asilomar Spring Conference is April 18-21. Discussed will be Herman Melville’s novel Benito Cereno, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s essay Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, August Strindberg’s play, Miss Julie, and a selection of poetry that includes work by U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass. For more information call Laura Rubin, (510)528-3626.

The few reservations about the Method of Shared Inquiry appeared to stem from a desire for a more action-oriented discussion or for more personal experiences from participants.

Asked to say how they would like to see the spirit of the day’s activities continued, the largest number of respondents said they’d like to have more small group discussions. Second was the more general idea of continuing exchanges between the two churches. Third was joint action projects.

SFGB Follow-Up Initiated

SFGB President Erma Browning has appointed Brian Mahoney, Jimmie Faris, and Rick White to enlist MLK participants in further shared inquiry discussions. The vast majority, more than two hundred and fifty, are new to Great Books.

Some of the measures being taken or planned are:

First "Mini-Retreat" Holds Discussions at Pac Bell, Tours SF/MOMA

Reaching out to younger readers and others not able to participate every two weeks or monthly in a GB discussion group, SFGB held its first "mini-retreat" at Pacific Bell in San Francisco on January 25. Fifty-eight individuals met in three groups in the morning to discuss Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton, and after lunch The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. Participants were on their own for lunch at the many local cafes.

Following the afternoon discussion, the group adjourned to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF/MOMA) to tour the show "Matisse to Diebenkorn" and other exhibits at this extraordinary new San Francisco site. The tour was arranged by SFGB’s Vince Scardina, a museum docent.

"Mini-retreats" are designed to be local one-day events, usually on a Saturday, about four times per year. They are intended, said chair Fiona Humphrey, to serve as another kind of local discussion group, not as a special event designed to attract a widely dispersed audience. Mini-retreats usually will be tied into another local attraction.

The event achieved its purpose in that the discussions were excellent, the tour was greatly enjoyed, and several younger San Franciscans and others participated who find frequent, single selection, local discussions incompatible with their work and family lives.

The next San Francisco mini-retreat is set for May 3 at the celebrated new public library. Its goal will be to attract a greater proportion of individuals not currently in local Great Books discussion groups. The readings are yet to be identified.

Events with a similar purpose are contemplated for other parts of the Bay Area, according to Humphrey.

We Need Leaders!

Ever thought about leading at a Great Books event?
If you’d like to consider it, please call Tom Cox at
(415)892-2310 or Barbara McConnell at (707)829-5643.

Adult World Record Set for Great Books Training

While everything else was going on, SFGB casually set a new world record for the number of adult GB discussion leaders and participants trained. Eighty-six SFGB leaders and participants were trained by Gary Schoepfel during the six days between the January 4 pre-discussion he conducted for the "Gathering of Equals" and January 11, when the event took place (see story above). "Your efforts brought together in six days more participants for adult program training than had been trained in any one year during my ten years at the Foundation," said Schoepfel in a recent letter. And he’s not even counting the 28 he trained the day before for the "Gathering of Equals."

Under the auspices of Leader Training chair and SFGB vice president Tom Cox, Schoepfel conducted the sessions at the homes of Erma and Brent Browning, Jimmie Faris, Anne Pym, and Kay and Rick White. All agreed that it was of outstanding quality.

Great Books Foundation Web Page
Information on the Great Books Foundation and local Great Books councils can be obtained at
http://www.greatbooks.org. The San Francisco Council has its own home page, including Reading Matters, at http://www.greatbooks-sf.com.

Author of "The Lady in Red" to Speak at Poetry Weekend

In what is already a season of coups, SFGB has scored another with the acceptance by noted contemporary poet Kim Addonizio of an invitation to speak on Saturday evening at this year’s Poetry Weekend. Addonizio had heard from earlier speakers of the enthusiastic response to their talks and the lively discussion which followed.

Addonizio is the author of The Philosopher’s Club, a book of poetry. Her new book is called Jimmy and Rita.

Poetry Weekend takes place at Westminster House, in Alamo, on July 18th and 19th. For more information, call Laura Rubin.

Ralston White Weekend Proves SFGB Can Discuss War and Peace in Six Hours

Triumph Creates Lust for James Joyce

Some said it couldn’t be done, but in a leap of faith SFGB decided to read Leo Tolstoy’s huge novel, War and Peace, for the Fall 1996 Ralston White Weekend on Mt. Tamalpais. Following an extraordinarily high quality leader preparation session conducted by Tom Cox, the discussions, sold out as always, went so well that most participants are urging James Joyce’s Ulysses for Fall 1997. Experienced leaders, however, believe this book is not discussible without substantial reference to outside sources – in particular Homer’s Odyssey. The use of outside sources is an exception to the Great Books method of shared inquiry. Ideas for a practical discussion strategy should be addressed to Catherine Sugrue, 1997 conference chair, through Reading Matters.

Colby Summer Institute Announced
The 1997 Summer Institute at Colby College in Waterville, Maine will feature selections from the original (1947) Great Books series. Included are works by Thucydides, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Aquinas, Montaigne, and Rousseau. The week-long conference begins August 3rd. For information, call Dan Kohn, (516)727-8600 or visit their web site at http://www.dol.net/~greatbooks/colby.htm.

Bobbie Eliason Leads Walnut Creek Group in 36thYear

In the second of a series of visits to local Bay Area discussion groups, your editor betook himself to a wooded neighborhood in Walnut Creek to sit in on Bobbie Eliason’s monthly meeting at her comfortable home. The selection was the novel Washington Square, by Henry James. Present were thirteen individuals and Bobbie began by announcing they would dwell on each of the four principal characters in the story.

Using a detailed list of questions she had developed and which she felt it necessary to cover to understand the reading, Bobbie began by asking each participant in turn to identify a trait of Dr. Sloper, the first character. Then she conducted an extended discussion of this character, sometimes guiding the discussion with fact questions and sometimes correcting a participant whom she felt to be in error -- "in the interest of time," she later explained. Also, in the interest of time, she occasionally gave her own interpretation of the text.

Bobbie’s insightful and tightly organized questions contributed to a lively and thoughtful discussion in which everyone in the room participated.

As the end of two-hours neared and the group was still working on Bobbie’s questions about the first character, she announced that the discussion of Washington Square would be continued at the next meeting. Time permitting, they would also begin to discuss James Baldwin’s "Sonny’s Blues," which she had selected in recognition of Black History Month.

As the book discussion was over for the evening, participant Ron Kihara told the group he is making a new batch of jalapeņo chutney, a condiment about which your editor needed to admit his ignorance. Ron informed us that hot peppers are assigned a "Scoville Rating." A typical pepper rates about 10,000 on the scale. The jalapeņos he uses are rated at 500,000. Interested readers can reach Ron through Bobbie.

Talking with Bobbie after the meeting I learned that the group has been meeting for 36 years and current members average twelve years participation. Turnover and absenteeism are very low. Larry Fussell, the much-loved SFGB ex-president who recently retired with his wife, Jan, to Wisconsin attended for three years in the 1970s as Bobbie’s co-leader. In recent years, Bobbie has led book discussions at Byron’s Boys’ Ranch, a correctional facility, and has done literacy work in the community.

This highly successful group is quite different from those discussed in our last issue. Its members come back year after year for a rigorous, directed discussion. They love it. The moral of the story remains, if you don’t like one group, try another!

GBF Names Books for 50th Anniversary Series

Recognizing its 50th anniversary, the Great Books Foundation has announced a special series of books. Three volumes of new readings can be ordered in April 1997 for delivery in May, three more in October, and three in April 1998. Each volume will contain five or six prose readings and a selection of poetry, enough material for six or seven discussions. Two novels will be recommended for outside purchase. Questions will be offered for all the readings.

Unlike the current five-year series, the new volumes will be organized by theme. Themes for the three May 1997 books are Love and Marriage, Parent and Child, and Living with the Past. For October they are Order and Chaos, Identity and Self-Respect, and The Evil and the Guilty. For May 1998 they are Politics, Leadership, and Justice, Happiness and Discontent, and Clashes of Culture.

Authors new in this series include Jane Austen, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, James Baldwin, Yukio Mishima, Marcel Proust, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Ralph Ellison, among others. Selections also will be included from the Bhagavad-Gita and the Tao Te Ching, along with new selections from traditional Great Books authors.

Late in 1997 the Foundation will publish How to Discuss a Book, a guide for shared inquiry discussion groups. Unlike the series volumes, this guide will be sold in bookstores.

A complete listing of the 50th Anniversary Series follows.

Love and Marriage

Isaac Bashevis Singer The Spinoza of Market Street
Søren Kierkegaard Either/Or Josef Skvorecký Emoke
Flora Annie Steel Tom-Tit-Tot and Caporushes
Yukio Mishima Patriotism
Plato Symposium


William Shakespeare Sonnet 116
Sylvia Plath The Applicant
Gregory Corso Marriage
Gwendolyn Brooks To Be in Love

Novels for Purchase

Vladimir Nabokov Lolita (suggested questions)
Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse (questions)

Parent and Child

A. B. Yehoshua The Continuing Silence of a Poet
Jamaica Kincaid Gwen and Somewhere, Belgium
Euripides Iphigenia at Aulis
William Faulkner Barn Burning
Andrea Lee New African
Franz Kafka Letter to His Father and The Judgment


W.B. Yeats Among School Children and
A Prayer for my Daughter
Derek Walcott A Letter from Brooklyn
Randall Jerrell The Lost Children
Sharon Olds Exclusive

Novels for Purchase

Jane Austen Persuasion (suggested questions)
Heinrich Boll Billiards at Half-Past Nine(questions)

Living with the Past

Marcel Proust Overture
Sigmund Freud The Rat Man
Gustaw Herling The Island
David Grossman Momik
Annie Dillard An American Childhood


William Wordsworth Ode: Intimations of Immortality
Adrienne Rich Diving into the Wreck
Robert Lowell For the Union Dead

Novels for Purchase

Gabriel Garcia Marquez One Hundred Years of Solitude (suggested questions)
Toni Morrison Song of Solomon (questions)

SAN FRANCISCO GREAT BOOKS COUNCIL Erma Browning, President; Tom Cox, Vice President; Duke Edwards, Secretary; Lee Jordan, Treasurer; Laura Holt Rubin, Coordinator -- telephone (510)528-3626.

Reading Matters Rick White, Editor 501 Santa Barbara Road Berkeley, CA 94707 e-mail rwwhite@aol.com