Vol. 1 No. 2
publication of the SAN
FRANCISCO GREAT BOOKS COUNCIL
Interracial "Gathering of Equals" Surpasses All
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 Councils
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 Foundations 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
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
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 Melvilles
novel Benito Cereno, Jean-Jacques Rousseaus
essay Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, August
Strindbergs 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
days activities continued, the largest number of
respondents said theyd like to have more small group
discussions. Second was the more general idea of continuing
exchanges between the two churches. Third was joint action
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:
- Include MLK participants on SFGB mailing lists for all
events and activities and for Reading Matters.
- Form a joint committee of SFGB with the two sponsoring
churches to explore how SFGB can continue to support them
in their mission of improving racial understanding.
- Explore how SFGB can publicize its activities within the
- Work with the newly-trained leaders from the MLK, Jr.
event to enlist their participation and assist them to
form GB groups within the two churches.
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
SFGBs 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
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 youd 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 hes not even counting the
28 he trained the day before for the "Gathering of
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
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
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 years
Poetry Weekend. Addonizio had heard from earlier speakers of the
enthusiastic response to their talks and the lively discussion
Addonizio is the author of The Philosophers 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 couldnt be done, but in a leap of faith
SFGB decided to read Leo Tolstoys 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 Joyces Ulysses for Fall 1997. Experienced
leaders, however, believe this book is not discussible without
substantial reference to outside sources in particular
Homers 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
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 Eliasons
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
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.
Bobbies 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 Bobbies 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 Baldwins "Sonnys
Blues," which she had selected in recognition of Black
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 Bobbies co-leader. In recent years, Bobbie has led
book discussions at Byrons 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 dont like one group, try
GBF Names Books for 50th
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
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
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
Love and Marriage
Isaac Bashevis Singer The Spinoza of Market
Søren Kierkegaard Either/Or Josef Skvorecký Emoke
Flora Annie Steel Tom-Tit-Tot and Caporushes
Yukio Mishima Patriotism
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
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)
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 email@example.com