Vol. 2 No. 1
Fall 1997

Reading Matters

publication of the SAN FRANCISCO GREAT BOOKS COUNCIL

 

Leaders Honored at Fort Mason Luncheon

Horrible Discussion Held

SFGB’s executive committee hosted lunch at San Francisco’s historic Fort Mason Officers Club on Saturday, September 13, to honor discussion group leaders. A hundred leaders and their guests from throughout Northern California ate great food, drank fine wine, and gazed through big windows across a sun-drenched lawn at sailboats on the bay. Certificates of recognition were awarded to the leaders.

The low point of the event was a discussion of four excerpts from the work of the English novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton, in whose name prizes are awarded annually in San Jose for the worst writing. Bulwer is best known for his opening sentence, "It was a dark and stormy night."

Leading the discussion was Wallis Leslie of Los Altos Hills and participating were President Erma Browning, Los Gatos; Barbara McConnell, Sebastopol; Dean Tinney, Mariposa; and your editor, Berkeley. The point was to do everything wrong and break all the rules. McConnell was a whiz at this, and she stayed deadpan throughout. Your editor, however, couldn’t keep from cracking up, particularly at his own jokes. By the time all of us had gotten the hang of being really bad the discussion was over and we had to sit down.

 

Letter from the President:

This is not just another year. As we recognized in honoring our leaders at Fort Mason, it is the 50th Anniversary of the Great Books Foundation.

We have had the busiest and most successful year in a long time.

I hope that in the coming year you will all join me in continuing to reach out and to grow this wonderful and enriching program without compromising its ideals.

-- Erma Browning, Los Gatos

 

Inequality Dominates Spring 1997 Asilomar Conference

Two hundred descended on Asilomar state conference center at Pacific Grove in perfect weather this April 18-20 to walk and talk among the pines and dunes, explore tidepools, and meet in groups to discuss literature.

In spite of the claim by SFGB’s Asilomar committee this year, as every other, that there is no conference theme, once again a theme emerged. In 1997 it was inequality. We always discuss a short novel, an essay, a play, and a selection of poetry. The essay was Rousseau’s The Origins of Inequality. The novel was Melville’s Benito Cereno, which took place on a slave ship. The play was Strindberg’s Miss Julie, where the title character seduces her servant. Or was it the other way around?

 

AN INVITATION: Please join us to honor the 50th anniversary of the Great Books at a program "Privacy in the Millennium." Selections from The Federalist Papers will be discussed and followed by a video of the recent Fred Friendly Seminar, "Privacy on the Eve of the Millennium." A Town Hall Meeting comparing our findings with those of the video participants will conclude the day. Saturday, February 7, 1998, 9:30 to 4:00, Pacific Bell headquarters, 370 3rd Street, San Francisco. Send check for $20 to cover continental breakfast and readings to V. Scardina, Registrar at 155 Brentwood Ave., San Francisco, CA 94127. Phone (415)585-5475.

 

The only session not keeping to the inequality theme was poetry, and here we got into some trouble. "Shame: An Aria," by US poet laureate Robert Hass, described a few things we all have and do but don’t talk about in polite company. The purpose in bringing these things up, his defenders argued, was to reduce the shame attached to them. The poem achieved this, they said, and besides it was less unpleasant on rereading. However, frustrating some and pleasing others, one discussion leader failed to allow time for the poem and another openly refused to discuss it. "I don’t talk about bodily excretions," he declared.

There were some complaints at the Saturday night party when cookies failed to appear due to the weekend’s only logistical slip-up, but many believed this was the best Asilomar weekend ever. Evaluation scores for the leaders, for the discussions, and for the selection of readings, averaged more than eight on a ten-point scale, according to SFGB vice president and leader chairman Tom Cox.

Chuck Scarcliff Answers Lady in the Red Dress

Kim Addonizio a Hit at Poetry Weekend

"I want a red dress," begins poet Kim Addonizio in "What Do Women Want?", her piece that caused a stir at Asilomar ‘95. "I want it flimsy and cheap. I want to wear it until someone tears it off me." She finishes the 27-line poem, "…I’ll wear it like bones, like skin, it’ll be the goddamned dress they’ll bury me in." SFGB leader Chuck Scarcliff took Addonizio’s appearance as guest speaker at Poetry Weekend ’97 to respond. His answer is printed below with permission.

Opinions of Addonizio’s poetry from our reading and discussion at the July 19-20 weekend were mixed as she writes about the underside of urban life. She arrived for Saturday evening in a provocative black and silver-blue leather ensemble that seemed designed to say that she was from a different world. However, her distinctive good looks, lively reading, and open and friendly answers to questions about her life and her writing made the occasion pleasant and memorable.

Other poems discussed during the weekend included pieces related to the theme "love and marriage" by Rumi, Taslima Nasrin, Gregory Corso, Alan Williamson, Sharon Olds, and Pablo Neruda, and a potpourri of one poem each by Archibald MacLeish, Frank O’Hara, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Oliver, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Czeslaw Milosz.

Next year’s theme selection will be Dante’s Divine Comedy.

 

What Do Men Want?

 

I want a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

 

I want it to be the biggest

and the loudest one in town.

When I get it, I’m going to massage

every damn part of that machine

until it makes my fingers raw

and until, by god, it glows in the dark.

I’ll put on leather pants so tight

you’ll think they were tattooed on me

and I’ll wrap my legs around that bike

just to feel its motor throb.

It’ll leap out at the world

when the light turns green

and I’ll drive down your street

and wake you up from your book or TV.

Then I’ll roar right through the middle of town

where the banks and offices are

and bring the paper pushers to the windows

to see what the hell’s going on.

I want to drive down the freeway

and zigzag through the morning commute

and keep on going out on the open road.

I’ll come up behind those big-assed RVs

and when I pass

I’ll give the finger

to whoever’s inside.

I want to take that motorcycle

off any road or trail

and stir up a storm of dust

that’ll burn your eyes and stick in your throat.

I want to drive that bike through this life

till its wheels fall off

and I’ll lay down tracks

that’ll be there when I’m dead.

 

I want that god-damned Harley bad.

 

-- Chas. W. Scarcliff, 1996

 

Rules Bent at Ralston White to Discuss Joyce’s Ulysses

They said it couldn’t be done. Great Books Foundation staff and experienced readers of James Joyce’s Ulysses warned that the book was too dependent on outside sources to be discussible under the Great Books rules of shared inquiry. SFGB was advised to select something else.

But Ralston White chair Catherine Sugrue, with support from members of her committee, decided to go ahead with the book. "Most of us will never read it otherwise," she told RM.

Faced with this decision, Leader chair Tom Cox and SFGB Joyce buff Brian Mahoney, both of whom had advised against the book, pitched in to make the annual Ralston White weekend as productive as they could. Cox held practice discussions in a group he leads. Mahoney enlisted several from his Pleasanton group in regular discussions of the novel. Cox recruited the best leaders and backups he could find. Cox and Mahoney decided that an extra session would be necessary during the weekend – four instead of the usual three – and that a few of the chapters should be optional. Most important, they recommended the use of a companion guide, Harry Blamires’s The New Bloomsday Book. Sugrue was persuaded by these recommendations.

As leaders studied the book during months before the scheduled event on November 1st and 2nd, many told each other they were frustrated and bored, and questioned whether this was a great book. They had been warned that it was difficult, but no one had told them it was boring. Although the book contained many beautiful passages and even whole chapters (everyone loved Bloom and Gertie at the beach and Molly’s famous soliloquy) long sections of the book seemed both pretentious and trivial. The premise was unconvincing – that a typical 24-hour day inside the heads of a few Dubliners was great material. Concluding the book, though widely acclaimed, to be a literary fraud, one reader said the emperor had no clothes. Another said of the hugely ornamented work that perhaps it was a case of too many clothes and not enough emperor.

Cox and Mahoney held a four-hour pre-discussion for leaders a week in advance of the event that gave them questions they felt would work at Ralston White, reducing the concerns of several who disliked the book and feared they might not be able to lead a good discussion.

Once again, the method of shared inquiry triumphed – but it might not have without the struggle that Sugrue and the leaders had undergone to find just the right bend in the rules. Or without the extraordinary quality of preparation and participation by the sell-out crowd of four dozen who attended the weekend. Or without the excellent Saturday evening lecture by Joyce scholar Robert Tracy of UC Berkeley.

Because opinion had been so divided about the book before the weekend, RM asked for time at the final lunch to check the outcome. A third of the four dozen had been bored much of the time in reading the book and more than half were often frustrated. Everyone who answered had a changed opinion of the book as a result of the weekend, from negative to neutral or positive, or from positive to more positive. All but two felt Ulysses had "worked" as a book to discuss using shared inquiry with the variations we incorporated. Only one thought it would have worked without a companion volume.

Asked if they now thought Ulysses a "great book," the spread was 26 yes, 0 no, and 5 undecided. Asked how many expected to read and discuss more of Joyce, 30 indicated yes and 3 no.

 

RALSTON WHITE: Mary Wood Topples into Pond

No Witnesses to Keynote Event

Popular and respected GB leader Mary Wood keynoted Ralston White this year by falling into the duck pond at the Mt. Tamalpais mansion. As she had failed to alert this space or other attendees, there were no witnesses. A tip makes this exclusive report possible.

Confronted at dinner, Wood -- passing herself off as a reader who had just taken a shower – admitted under questioning that she had fallen into the pond. In a Joyceian spirit of journalistic inquiry, RM asked what she’d gotten on her. "Duck poop? Feathers? What all?"

"You’re welcome to examine the clothes," said Wood. "They’re upstairs." RM, its Joyceian conversion incomplete, thought better of it.

 

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.

 

 

English Patient Survives Rough Treatment at Picnic

Erma Browning and Slate are Re-elected

Differences between the movie and the book sometimes confused an otherwise lively and enjoyable discussion of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient at the GBSF annual picnic in June but the proximity of large quantities of cheese appeared to have little effect. For several years the picnic has been held in a grassy area under trees behind The Cheese Factory, a Marin County landmark on the Petaluma - Point Reyes Road west of the north end of Novato Boulevard. As usual, the spot was sunny with a cooling western breeze.

The picnic doubles as the Council’s annual meeting, and the election of officers was held. The sixty-some attendees ate potluck and caught up with old friends, listened to brief reports from the Executive Committee about the Council’s extraordinarily busy year, then elected the recommended slate of candidates by acclaim. Continuing are Erma Browning, President; Tom Cox, Vice President; Lee Jordan, Treasurer, Shirley Mortensen, Contract Negotiator; and Vince Scardina, Historian. Because long-time Secretary, Trudy Powers, and her successor, Duke Edwards, had resigned from the Executive Committee due to other demands on their time, Brent Browning was elected to take that position. Other members of the Committee are Louise DiMattio, Jimmie Faris, Gary Geltemeyer, Roy Harvey, Fiona Humphrey, Brian Mahoney, Mark Scardina, Dick Stephens, Dean Tinney, Rick White, and Nancy Wortman. The Executive Coordinator is Laura Holt Rubin.

Following the picnic, President Browning appointed chairs for the standing committees: Asilomar, Brent Browning; Ralston White (the long novel), Catherine Sugrue; Poetry, Laura Holt Rubin and Mary Wood; Annual Meeting/Picnic, Nancy Wortman; Publishing, Mark Scardina; Leader Training and Selection, Tom Cox; Telecommunications, Roy Harvey; Mailing Functions, Wallis Leslie; Mini-retreats, Fiona Humphrey; and Nominations, Roy Harvey.

 

Great Books Foundation and Chicago Council Test Ideas

800 Attend Federalist Papers Discussions

Invited by the Public Broadcast System to help publicize its Fred Friendly Seminars series, "Liberty and Limits," GBF and the Chicago metropolitan GB council succeeded in attracting 800 Chicagoans to participate in one of four day-long events focusing on The Federalist Papers. Key to their recruiting success was enlisting the local chapters of the American Bar Association, League of Women Voters, and Federalist Society to book quantities of seats as co-sponsors. After small group discussions, participants met in general session to view the videotape of the PBS panel on the same material. Then they watched a panel discussion by their own leaders, who had seen the PBS program in advance.

SFGB’s next mini-retreat, scheduled for a Saturday in February at Pacific Bell headquarters in San Francisco, will also center on The Federalist Papers and the PBS videotape. (See Page 1, AN INVITATION.)

Partnership Starts Ten New Groups

Working together, GBF and the local council also have successfully begun ten new Chicago discussion groups, bringing the total in the metropolitan area to more than forty. A kit for starting new groups is almost ready for distribution.

Some of the factors that seem to help are: 1) The discussion group should have the feeling that it already exists. This can be done by converting an existing book discussion group to the GB format. But it is also possible by bringing a small core from an existing group into the new setting and keeping it there long enough for the new group to get its own momentum. 2) The first meeting should include a demonstration discussion. 3) An experienced discussion leader should conduct the first several discussions while identifying and training a successor. 4) Advertisements in local free newspapers attract participants. In Chicago such ads cost about $500 and run for 2-3 weeks. 5) People will not respond to an ad for training to get into a group.

Another Partner to be Chosen Next Year

Chicago is only the first test site for intensive cooperation between the foundation and a metropolitan council. Next year GBF will select another metropolitan council to try out the kit for beginning new groups and undertake other experiments in partnership.

 

Adult Director Schoepfel Reports Banner Year for Program

In a recent interview with Reading Matters, GBF adult program director Gary Schoepfel cited three outstanding accomplishments for the program in 1996-1997. Excellent communication has been re-established between the foundation and metropolitan councils. More adult program leaders were trained by GBF this year than in all of the previous ten years. (SFGB figured prominently in this accomplishment.) And sales of 50th anniversary adult book series are running strongly ahead of projections, especially important because book revenues are the largest element of financial support for GBF’s adult program. (For titles, see Reading Matters, Spr. 1997, at www.greatbooks-sf.com.)

 

Six Travel to Maine for Colby Great Books Week

Larry and Roberta Colin, Palo Alto; their nine-year old grandson Burt; Gary Geltemeyer, Oakland; and your editor and his wife Kay, Berkeley, traveled to Waterville, Maine, in August for the annual Great Books week at Colby College. Featured were six authors’ works from the original 1947 adult GB series: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, Aristotle’s Politics (Book 1), three plays by Aristophanes, Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, several essays by Montaigne, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract.

"Colby is a magic place and the week was magic," said Rick White on his return. "The readings were among the most difficult that I have tried – in particular, Summa Theologica. Once again, the method met the test. Discussions were well-led and exciting, and I came out of each knowing the work many times better and feeling that it belonged to me."

The Colby format is to meet from 9:30 to 11:30 six mornings; afternoons are free to socialize, head for the lake or maybe the campus’s excellent art gallery, or to review or finish reading the next selection; and evenings there is usually something special scheduled. Tuesday is always the Portland String Quartet in the chapel, and they were splendid as always. Wednesday was Woody Allen’s movie Love and Death, a takeoff of War and Peace, in the campus theater. Thursday was talent night, which began with a fine student group, the Pearl Quartet, from Oklahoma University, playing Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, then deteriorated into a chorus line that starred our Stanford rocket scientist Larry Colin in a dramatic black satin robe singing an explanation of Summa Theologica to the tune of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The program was rescued at the end by the always hilarious "financial report" of Chuck Ferrara, Long Island, New York. This year Chuck reminded us that inside each great book there is a skinny one trying to get out.

Mostly because we’re getting older, attendance has declined from over 200 a few years back to 126 in 1997. Reading Matters urges you to think about this wonderful way to spend the first week in August. The weather in Maine is at its best. The Colby site is beautiful. The tempo of one discussion per day for six days is relaxing and satisfying. And the people are committed to a kind of civilized life that may be disappearing.

Next year’s readings will center upon the theme, "On Becoming," and will include a portion of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Robert Pollack’s Signs of Life, Rene Descartes’ Meditation on First Principles, Katherine Ann Porter’s short stories The Old Order, Eric Erickson’s Identity and the Life Cycle, and Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches.

"If a man is alone in the forest, is he still wrong?"

-- Bart Sullivan, Colby College, August 1997.

 

Frankenstein, Angels Brought to Golden Gate Park

by Gary Geltemeyer

Thirty individuals brought copies of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread into the flowered acres of Strybing Arboretum on Sunday, October 5, 1997, for a day of book discussions designed to draw new participants to Great Books. This was the third in a series of "mini-retreats" aimed at new or younger readers too busy with careers and families to commit themselves to bi-weekly or monthly discussions. However, only two new participants attended this event. Total attendance was down from 58 at the initial mini-retreat in January of this year.

Frankenstein, first published in 1818, posed questions of contemporary interest: Can science create life? Can it keep its powers from creating evil as well as good? And why is the perception and feeling of "being different" so important and devastating in human affairs? Where Angels Fear to Tread, published in 1905, brought humor into a comparison of English and Italian culture, portraying the one as uptight and snobbish, the other as open and emotional, with neither country’s citizens able to make sense of the other’s. Discussions were focused and disciplined, no doubt because most of the participants were old hands.

Many stayed for a guided tour of the arboretum’s collection of plants and trees. From world-wide sources, they are arranged to replicate native habitats and feature a fragrances garden, redwood trail, moon-viewing pool, elevated cloud forest, and other special environments. Some participants from outside The City, were surprised at the size of Golden Gate Park. The huge area, they learned, was originally sand dunes. Soil had to be brought in to cover the sand, so the trees have shallow roots. This makes windstorms more dangerous than earthquakes in the park. In the howling storm of December 1995, more than 1,000 trees were blown down during a single night.

The mini-retreat – both in concept and execution -- have been perfected: only a few meetings during the year, excellent reading selections, top-quality leaders, different and special settings, a guided tour after the event. The challenge remains to add new people.

 

Editor Makes Odyssey to Saratoga, Is Circled by Women with Books

On a sunny October morning, editor Rick White switched on the tape player and maneuvered his wife’s 1994 Mercury Villager out the narrow driveway. This would be the longest trip yet in RM’s series of visits to local GB discussion groups. Remembering a recommendation by Larry Colin, he’d checked out Pat Conroy’s novella Lords of Discipline from the Berkeley Public Library. With luck, the two cassettes should just about get him to Saratoga and back.

Ninety minutes later he parked in front of the address given, walked down a narrow driveway past a well-maintained tennis court, knocked gently on the door of a one-story natural-wood contemporary house enveloped in trees and walked in to find himself in a dimly-lit room facing more than a dozen women holding books full of writings by African-American authors.

The day’s reading was a selection from the anthology Breaking Ice, edited by Terry McMillan, and included excerpts from The Terrible Threes (Ishmael Reed), Before Echo (Fatima Shaik), Betsey Brown (Ntozake Shange), and A Feast of Fools (Ellease Southerland). Co-leading the discussion were host Gladys Wood Stutzman and Shirley Guest.

Founded in about 1950 (no one knew exactly when), this group has had few male participants over the years, probably because it meets from 10 a.m. to noon. When it started, the women were mostly young housewives with husbands in the professions. Today, most are no longer young except in vitality. They lament the lack of men, young adults, and minorities. There used to be a few of each; now there are none. Ten years ago, having gone through all of GBF’s books several times, they decided to select their own readings and a committee does so from a mix of old and new, fiction and non-fiction. On rotation, everyone co-leads, everyone hosts, and everyone provides lunch.

All participated in a lively discussion of the four selections. When one person passed around a copy of the complete novel that was the source of one of the selections and began to talk about it, another gently reminded the group it was outside the rules to discuss something they had not all read. Participants cited personal experiences, but these were kept in bounds through brevity and a direct relationship to the text.

After a fine lunch on the rear deck among trees planted in 1960 by Dr. Stutzman, White headed north. The Lords of Discipline finished as he re-entered Berkeley: a perfect day – and one more demonstration that each GB discussion group is unique.

 

BOOK REVIEW: "One America Indivisible," by Sheldon Hackney.

Sheldon Hackney ran the "National Conversation on American Pluralism and Identity," the Federal grant program that supported "A Gathering of Equals," the GB series that culminated in last January’s assembly of more than 400 blacks and whites to discuss Martin Luther King Jr.’s "Letter from Birmingham Jail (See Reading Matters, Vol.1, No.2). Now he has written a book about what he learned from the program.

In a large section reporting on what happened in local projects, Hackney accords our Oakland event only passing mention – this in spite of the fact that he had hired one of the Bay’s finest freelance reporters to cover it for the book. He catalogues what whites and non-whites said at hundreds of events across the country. Our program was different: we didn’t air out an endless laundry list of opinions about the American condition, we read and discussed – the races together – a great and truly moving document of American history.

The Great Books discussion method, as it was applied by a racially mixed group of trained leaders to Dr. King’s letter, set the stage for a truly memorable coming together of hundreds in tearful interracial catharsis. As far as we can tell, shared inquiry was the only model in the "National Conversation" that achieved the program’s goal of demonstrating the values that hold America together.

Hackney understands the problems that divide America and writes with moving insight. Here, for example, he describes the contribution of the mass media:

In our media-saturated culture, the slow slog required to gain real knowledge and wisdom has taken a back seat to the thrill of extreme opinion. The far ends of the political spectrum are rewarded with notoriety and lucre. Politicians shout across the airwaves on Crossfire; journalists exaggerate and oversimplify their opinions on weekend talk shows; television bookers consciously seek out the extremes of opinion because it makes "lively television." (p.5)

He quotes Harold Skrimstad, Jr., on the role of "experts":

The [discussion has] been taken over by professionals and experts who are, unfortunately, too often stakeholders in our discontent.

And Archibald MacLeish about the way a people sees itself:.

The soul of a people is the image it cherishes of itself….To destroy that image is to destroy…the identity of the nation…the means by which the nation recognizes what it is and what it has to be. (p.10)

But then he goes on the attack against a class of writers who perceive the problem much as he purports to, but forward remedies that aren’t "politically correct." Here, for example, he takes a whack at Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind:

the grumpy, idiosyncratic, surprise bestseller of 1987 [which] denounces every new departure of the 1960s and concludes that the only thing that can save the university, and Western Civilization itself, is the Great Books approach to liberal education.

And goes on to deprecate other critics of contemporary higher education.

Many pale reflections appeared in Bloom’s afterglow: Dinesh D’Sousa, Roger Kimball, Richard Bernstein, and Lynne Cheney chief among them.

The pale Mr. Bernstein, it happens, devotes ten pages in Dictatorship of Virtue to a critique of Mr. Hackney’s enforcement of "politically correct" but divisive policies as president of the University of Pennsylvania. Pale "backsies" for Mr. Hackney, who seems to understand the contemporary condition intellectually but doesn’t recognize the means to solve it.

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that your editor joined Great Books as a result of reading the late Mr. Bloom’s "grumpy, idiosyncratic, surprise bestseller."

 

MARK YOUR CALENDAR!

Feb. 7 (Sat.) -- "Privacy in the Millennium," Mini-retreat at Pacific Bell, San Francisco.

Mar. 20-22 (Fri.-Sun.) – Asilomar Spring Conference, Pacific Grove. Readings to be announced.

July 18-19 (Sat.-Sun.) – Poetry Weekend, Alamo.

Aug. 2-7 (Sun.-Sat.) – Colby Summer Institute, Waterville, ME. Call Dan Kohn at (516)727-8600.

Nov. 7-8 (Sat.-Sun.) – Ralston White, Mill Valley. Reading to be announced.

Additional mini-retreats and Annual Picnic, dates to be determined.

 

SAN FRANCISCO GREAT BOOKS COUNCIL Erma Browning, President; Tom Cox, Vice President; Brent Browning, 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 rwwhite@aol.com