Vol. 2 No. 1
of the SAN FRANCISCO GREAT BOOKS COUNCIL
Leaders Honored at Fort Mason
SFGBs executive committee hosted lunch at San
Franciscos 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, couldnt 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
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
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 SFGBs 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 Rousseaus The Origins of
Inequality. The novel was Melvilles Benito Cereno,
which took place on a slave ship. The play was
Strindbergs 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
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 dont 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 dont talk about
bodily excretions," he declared.
There were some complaints at the Saturday night party when
cookies failed to appear due to the weekends 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
"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, "
Ill wear it like bones, like
skin, itll be the goddamned dress theyll bury me
in." SFGB leader Chuck Scarcliff took Addonizios
appearance as guest speaker at Poetry Weekend 97 to
respond. His answer is printed below with permission.
Opinions of Addonizios 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 OHara, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Oliver,
Rainer Maria Rilke, and Czeslaw Milosz.
Next years theme selection will be Dantes Divine
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, Im going to massage
every damn part of that machine
until it makes my fingers raw
and until, by god, it glows in the dark.
Ill put on leather pants so tight
youll think they were tattooed on me
and Ill wrap my legs around that bike
just to feel its motor throb.
Itll leap out at the world
when the light turns green
and Ill drive down your street
and wake you up from your book or TV.
Then Ill roar right through the middle of
where the banks and offices are
and bring the paper pushers to the windows
to see what the hells going on.
I want to drive down the freeway
and zigzag through the morning commute
and keep on going out on the open road.
Ill come up behind those big-assed RVs
and when I pass
Ill give the finger
to whoevers inside.
I want to take that motorcycle
off any road or trail
and stir up a storm of dust
thatll burn your eyes and stick in your
I want to drive that bike through this life
till its wheels fall off
and Ill lay down tracks
thatll be there when Im dead.
I want that god-damned Harley bad.
-- Chas. W. Scarcliff, 1996
Rules Bent at Ralston White to
Discuss Joyces Ulysses
They said it couldnt be done. Great Books Foundation
staff and experienced readers of James Joyces 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 Blamiress 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 Mollys
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
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
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
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 shed gotten on
her. "Duck poop? Feathers? What all?"
"Youre welcome to examine the clothes," said
Wood. "Theyre upstairs." RM, its Joyceian
conversion incomplete, thought better of it.
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.
English Patient Survives Rough
Treatment at Picnic
Browning and Slate are Re-elected
Differences between the movie and the book sometimes confused
an otherwise lively and enjoyable discussion of Michael
Ondaatjes 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 Councils 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 Councils
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
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.
SFGBs 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.)
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.
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
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 GBFs adult
program. (For titles, see Reading Matters, Spr. 1997, at
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, Aristotles
Politics (Book 1), three plays by Aristophanes, Summa
Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, several essays by
Montaigne, and Jean-Jacques Rousseaus The Social
"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
campuss 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 Allens 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
Schuberts 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
Mostly because were 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 years readings will center upon the theme, "On
Becoming," and will include a portion of Aristotles Metaphysics,
Robert Pollacks Signs of Life, Rene Descartes
Meditation on First Principles, Katherine Ann
Porters short stories The Old Order, Eric
Ericksons Identity and the Life Cycle, and Matsuo
Bashos The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other
"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 Shelleys Frankenstein
and E. M. Forsters 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
countrys citizens able to make sense of the others.
Discussions were focused and disciplined, no doubt because most
of the participants were old hands.
Many stayed for a guided tour of the arboretums
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
On a sunny October morning, editor Rick White switched on the
tape player and maneuvered his wifes 1994 Mercury Villager
out the narrow driveway. This would be the longest trip yet in RMs
series of visits to local GB discussion groups. Remembering a
recommendation by Larry Colin, hed checked out Pat
Conroys 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 days 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 GBFs 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
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 Januarys 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
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
Bays 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
didnt 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
The Great Books discussion method, as it was applied by a
racially mixed group of trained leaders to Dr. Kings
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 programs 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
He quotes Harold Skrimstad, Jr., on the role of
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
the identity of the nation
the means by
which the nation recognizes what it is and what it has to be.
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 arent "politically correct." Here, for
example, he takes a whack at Allan Blooms 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
Many pale reflections appeared in
Blooms afterglow: Dinesh DSousa, 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. Hackneys 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 doesnt 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. Blooms "grumpy, idiosyncratic, surprise
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org