Vol. 3 No. 1
Fall 1998

Reading Matters



Letter from the President

Dear Friends and Fellow Readers,

Your Executive Committee is working on a strategic plan for the future of the San Francisco Great Books Council. The Great Books Foundation has joined us in a partnership, committing staff and funds to help us achieve the plan.

Our goal is to expand the program and make it available to more people. Many of us believe that that unless we attract not only more individuals but also a younger generation to the program it may not survive.

To succeed, the plan requires a significant increase in the number of Great Books participants who will take leadership roles. In coming weeks, some of you will receive calls or letters from the Executive Committee asking for your help. Please say yes.

If you do not get a call and would like to help, please let me or a council member know. I can be reached at (510)527-3762.

Our partnership with the Foundation presents a special opportunity. Let’s take advantage of it.

-- Rick


Who is Gary Schoepfel? And Why Do We Keep Seeing Him?

Partnership with the Foundation

Every quarter Gary Schoepfel will fly out from Chicago to meet with the San Francisco GB Council. His mission: to expand the adult Great Books program. His partner: the San Francisco Council, selected as a laboratory region to work with the Great Books Foundation. Gary’s job is adult program director for the foundation.

Actor and Trainer

Gary, who used to be a professional actor, has trained thousands of leaders as part of his job. For example, for our Martin Luther King Birthday celebration in January he trained 120 people from Great Books and from our partners in the celebration, the Allen Temple Baptist Church and the Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church.

Rick White describes Gary as a man who loves his job. In his home, Gary’s Great Books group, the "Balmoral Salon" regularly draws enough people to split into two groups. At an Ontario cabin he built with his own hands, Gary leads a summer discussion retreat. You have to paddle across Limerick Lake to get there.

In addition to attending our September Council meeting, Gary spent several days with us in May, participating in our first strategic planning session, then speaking at our annual meeting/picnic.

Gary suggests:

v Each group member commit to bringing in one new participant this year and sticking with that person. If the new person leaves, bring in another.

Findings From Chicago Lab

San Francisco benefits from the experience of the Foundation’s first partner council, which, logically, was the Chicago Metropolitan Council.

The Chicago Council started and then studied about 12 new groups in bookstores, libraries and cafes. Here are several findings from the Chicago laboratory report by consultant Mark Cwik.

v As the result of an explosion in housing, downtown Chicago has become a place to live, and therefore can support several Great Books groups.

v Daytime groups can attract people with non-standard work schedules and people who work at home, as well as retired people.

v Bookstores are a perfect partner for Great Books.


Three New Groups Read Four Series—Go Figure!

Solution in Story

By Rick White

September was a great month for new groups. Three were formed with different target groups and different venues:

v At a Santa Rosa bookstore, a group for the general reading audience

v At a Mill Valley apartment, a group focusing on younger adults

v In the Berkeley Hills, a group aimed at a single block.

(For dates and times, see the roster on page 3.)

Barnes & Noble’s Santa Rosa bookstore was the scene of a lively demonstration discussion of "The Melian Dialogue," from Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, led by Tom Cox, chair of leader training. Among the twelve participants was an official of the bookstore who provided a royal welcome to Great Books by installing a display of our books in the store, rounding up and arranging the furniture for the meeting, photocopying the materials, and in every way making the group feel at home.

Abalone and Kafka

Barbecued abalone pried off a submerged rock on California’s north coast by participant Marsen Whitman was one of the delicacies at the potluck dinner launching a younger adults reading and discussion group at Dave White’s apartment in Mill Valley. Dave’s dad, whose name appears above, led nine participants in a demonstration discussion of Franz Kafka’s parable "The Doorkeeper," from The Trial.

Block Party with a Twist

The gustatory pickings were slimmer at Dave’s dad’s meeting on Santa Barbara Road in Berkeley, an experiment at organizing a Great Books discussion group on a single block in a neighborhood of serious readers. The food and drink were a bowl of Famous Amos cookies and Peet’s coffee. The treat was a visit from Great Books Foundation adult program director Gary Schoepfel, who led nine participants in a discussion of the Kafka piece. In the future, time will be allotted after each discussion for neighborhood gossip.

Why four series? The enthusiastic Mill Valley group chose two books from the 50th Anniversary series, Order and Chaos and Living with the Past. (Santa Rosa chose the former; Berkeley, the latter.)

Alameda Group Shares Inquiry & Responsibility

Also Madeleines

By Mary Wood

"I refuse to read them again." After three times through the old Great Books series, Frank Bette said no more! So the Alameda group is reading the 50th Anniversary series.

Frank, a woodworker, sculptor, photographer and poet has been with the Alameda Great Books group since it was founded by Barbara McConnell, now in Sebastopol. Jeff Hitchings carried it on from 1987 to 1994. Jeff says, "I chose a church for a meeting place because new people are more likely to come to a public place than someone’s home."

When Jeff left Alameda he recruited a committee to run the group. Alan Gooch, a great leader of philosophy and local real estate broker, co-leads with me. We ask others to lead as well. Susan Foreman, a novelist, acts as phone contact. Several people usually bring refreshments and help with posters and publicity. A psychic touch--Susan made madeleines for our October meeting: and when we unpacked our new series, Living with the Past, there was a picture of Proust’s madeleine.

Of the summer’s reading, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Frank says, "It was like a poem. I dipped into it and read a page here and there. I will look to it for inspiration for my poems." He adds, he didn’t understand it all. "Isolation," says Carol Fistler.

Isabel Westwood, who also enjoys membership in a book group at Barnes and Noble, says "The level of discussion is higher at Great Books—definitely. "

Friends Mourn Pat Ellis

In Memoriam

From Jan Fussell

Pat Ellis died in July in Australia after battling a cancer recurrence for a year. The former registrar for the Poetry Weekend, she brought quality to every aspect of the job. Creative touches were added to the flyers, name tags, and schedules. Naming the rooms after poets and the companionable sherry party on the verandah were her ideas as well. Always efficient and smiling, she handled any problem that came up well.

Pat and her friends Adrienne Westman, a past Council president, and Cathy Owen—and Francois the Frog! served on the poetry committee with me from its beginning in 1986 until 1994.

Great Books Around the Nation:

Colby Institute Cops to Theme

Will Asilomar be Next?

By Rick White

Many thoughtful participants insist there is a theme each year at the Asilomar Spring Conference but the reading selection committee refuses to admit it. The Colby Institute committee makes no such pretense: this year’s theme was "On Becoming".

Larry and Roberta Colin (Palo Alto), Dean Tinney (Mariposa), and I traveled to Waterville, Maine, for this very special event during the first week in August, as we have for several years.

Brief selections from Aristotle and Plotinus were discussed, along with Descartes’ famous essay Meditations on First Philosophy where he concludes that "I think therefore I am," short stories from The Old Order by Katherine Ann Porter, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by the classical Japanese writer Matsuo Basho, Signs of Life (about DNA) by Robert Pollack, and Identity and the Life Cycle, developmental psychology by Erik Erikson.

Idiosyncratic Dialogue:

Rick: The Plotinus selection was unintelligible

Editor: He’s a mystic!

Rick: Being a mystic is no excuse!

Of all the discussions, the scientific ones particularly aided my understanding. We should more often discuss scientific works in Great Books--at least those that are written for a non-technical audience.

Do Unto Others

Next year’s theme is "Do Unto Others." The readings will be Moliere’s Tartuffe, Shaw’s Major Barbara, Kant’s Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, and Dostoevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. Registration is $450 for six days, single or double occupancy. Contemporary dormitory suites will be ready in 1999 to replace the traditional arrangement of bedrooms along a hallway and men’s/women’s mass bathrooms. For more information, call me at (510)527-3762 or Colby chair Dan Kohn at (516)727-8600 -- FAX (516)727-7592.

Look for Colby participants at Asilomar this spring; about 10 people showed interest.

Magnetic North Attracts Brownings

Check out the Sofa

Report from Brent and Erma Browning

In early summer, amid sweeping vistas of sea and mountains, the Northwest Great Books Institute meets. An event similar to our Asilomar, it is held yearly at Western Washington University, which is set on a knoll above the town of Bellingham, 90 miles north of Seattle.

"The Yellow Sofa was the real sleeper of the readings," says Erma, who says the best discussion was on this Eca de Quieros novel about an adulterous wife. Very controversial, adds Brent: 112 pages of love, infidelity, revenge and forgiveness.

Erma praised the evening entertainment. After a formal, dress-up dinner, the organizers provided a basic story similar to The Yellow Sofa with blanks to fill in. Some of the stories people wrote were hilarious, says Erma.

"One of the best readings in Great Books," said Brent of "The Grand Inquisitor," three related chapters from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Regeneration by Pat Barker is a semi-historical novel based on the efforts of the distinguished neurologist and anthropologist W. H. R. Rivers to regenerate the shattered lives of his shell-shocked patients during World War I.

For poetry: "Ode Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" by William Wordsworth and "Diving into the Wreck" by Adrienne Rich.

Accommodations in the college dorm include restrooms shared only by two rooms, says Erma, and great cafeteria food.

The Institute is sponsored by the Great Books Councils of Seattle, Vancouver and Western Washington University.

For information, contact:

Northeast Great Books Institute
Registrar: Florence Eberline
9610 216th Place SW
Edmonds, WA 98020


Great Books Goes Abroad:

Cruise to Greece and Turkey

"It was fabulous!"

"It was everything---it was sun! It was enlightening! It was better than I thought it could be!" said Lana Dilger of the Great Books cruise in Greece and Turkey. Also among the 24 Great Books people on this fabulous trip were the ubiquitous Fussells, Jan and Larry; Flora Jane Starkey; Linda Coffin, and Gary Geltemeyer.

"Just to see everything I had read about or seen pictures of was wonderful," says Gary Geltemeyer. "The sense of history in the ruins!" The two week cruise included Athens, Delphi, Santorini, Crete, Rhodes, Patmos, Ephesus in Turkey, Istanbul, Mykonos, and Delos. All this and discussions of The Sibyl, a novel by Par Lagerkvist taking place in Delphi; and two plays, Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus; and Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides;

Organized by Alice Colby of the New England Great Book Council, this one-time event celebrated the 50th anniversary of Great Books. Gary says: "Suggestion--next time to Italy by boat? Who wants to be on the committee!"


From the Ridiculous to the Sublime—Poetry Weekend

And a Note of Sorrow

A bowl of oatmeal is not the same after reading "Oatmeal." Part of our "Poets at Play" discussion, Galway Kinnell’s poem tells of sharing oatmeal (except he called it porridge) with an imaginary companion, John Keats. Other poems, at first sight playful, turned out to have a serious side, such as William Carlos Williams’ "The Sea Elephant."

On that hot July Saturday the power went out, fortunately returning in time to turn on the tape recorder. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky has a project to tape people reading their favorite poems. Our tape has been submitted by Wallis Leslie, who organized the event for us. Shakespeare sonnets were very popular, the Poetry committee noted.

Reading aloud helped us appreciate the classic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. He is rhythmically creative, as these lines from the Windhover show:

"Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, pride, plume, here Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, o my chevalier!

"Hopkins is expert in describing ‘God’s Grandeur’ in the natural world," says Carol Fistler, referring to the title of another of his poems. Carol, a member of the poetry committee, attended a summer session at Oxford on Hopkins. His rich imagery and personal relationship to God tie him to a tradition of personal poetry rather than to the late 19th century.

Saddened by the loss of Laura Holt Rubin, we held a memorial for her, organized by Carla Danby. Her friends spoke of her and read poems. Tom Cox’s is printed in this newsletter .


A Walk on the Wild Side & A Talk on the Wilde Side

Report on Mini-retreats

"A nice casual day starting with a continental breakfast, says Vince Scardina of the May mini-retreat. Anything but casual were the selections. Wallis Leslie, one of the discussion leaders, describes them for us: "The Kreuzter Sonata is a tirade about how social practices lead women to virtually prostitute themselves to get a husband, then torture them to death, although in this case the husband murders the wife." (By Leo N. Tolstoi).

"The Beast in the Jungle" by Henry James, Wallis characterizes as: "At the other end of the passion spectrum is Henry James exquisitely subtle story of a couple who never marry due to the man’s devouring egotistical passivity--but the woman still ends up dead."

A docent tour of the California Academy of Sciences complemented the "beastly" readings.

Held in May, this mini-retreat was followed by A Talk on the Wilde Side on October 3, too late for write-up in this edition. The selection was Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

Chaired by Fiona Humphrey the goal of the mini- retreats is to introduce new people to Great Books. It’s also perfect for people who can’t get away for a whole weekend because of children or business, or who can’t commit to a regular group. Everyone, however, is welcome.


New Editor’s Policy for Reading Matters

My aim is names and quotes, so I welcome submissions from a single line to half a page. Contributions may be edited or polished up a bit.

Personal response to the literature will inspire others to read it. Politics? No thanks.

-- Mary Wood

Pastrami and a Puzzle:

Will We Get Consensus or Settle For a Majority?

Great Plans for Great Books

Council meetings are open to all, but in case you can’t get there, let me tell you about them. First, try to get to Max’s Diner on Third Street about 6:00 p.m. for a great pastrami sandwich and convivial company. Next, head across the street to Pacific Bell, a location graciously provided by Louise DiMattio, who last meeting wrote up the minutes at her laptop as we talked. And did we talk! The theme was drafting a strategic plan to expand the program.


With the aid of a trained facilitator, the Council has been working for several months on the plan. "I find it interesting working with volunteers, instead of in a business setting," says Kay White, who remains unbiased despite marriage to president Rick. "You have to count on each individual to meet their commitment. In some ways it is more challenging work to bind to a deeper consensus."

She adds that in business the process usually is concentrated into a few days at an off-site retreat. "The council," she says, "has done extremely well, accomplishing a lot despite the work [being] spread out over a period of months."

A Few Highlights

With thanks to Josh Wolfe, Suzanne Passalacqua, and Rick White for summarizing the discussions, here are some key points. The full plan when approved will be published in this newsletter. In the meantime, anyone interested can obtain the latest draft by calling Rick White.

v We have a shortage of younger people, a term we are uncomfortable quantifying. But the question is posed: without an infusion of "younger" people, will the Adult Program survive?

v What is unique to Great Books is the shared inquiry method. Discussions are usually superior to those of a "Book Group."

v We have a great pool of leaders in this area.

v Suzanne’s paper suggests targeting younger adults, and then marketing to that target.

v Instead of one coordinator, we may create area representatives something like the earlier position of "Area Vice President" to help us focus our geographical efforts. These individuals would be liaison with groups in their area and help form new groups.


Officers Elected at Picnic; Lee Jordan Praised

Editor New President

It’s always great weather at the Cheese Factory for the Annual Meeting and Picnic, held this year on Memorial Day. Surrounded by green fields, the Novato site includes barbecue pits, a pond, and trees. With the great food brought to this potluck, the Cheese Factory is only for "take home" food. Nancy Wortman, who organizes the event, puts on a great party!

Gary Schoepfel from the Great Books Foundation was a special guest. Gary talked about the glory days of the adult Great Books program, when thousands came to some events. A practical tip from Gary: carry business cards "advertising your group."

New Officers

New officers were elected:

President Rick White
Vice President Tom Cox
Secretary Louise DiMattio
Treasurer Grace Apple Dennison
Past President Erma Browning

Erma spoke about what she felt were the special successes of her administration -- the mini-retreats, the Martin Luther King Day, and the newsletter. She led a round of applause for Lee Jordan, outgoing treasurer, who was honored for 28 years on the job. An outstanding record!

Other members of the Executive Committee for the 1998-1999 year are Brent Browning, Jimmie Faris, Gary Geltemeyer, Roy Harvey, Fiona Humphrey, Brian Mahoney, Shirley Mortensen, Mark Scardina, Vince Scardina, Lianne Scherr, Dick Stephens, Dean Tinney, Mary Wood, and Nancy Wortman.

With the election of Rick White as president of the Council, Mary Wood takes over as editor of Reading Matters. Rick will continue as publisher.

After the business meeting, Vince Scardina, Tom Cox, and Brian Mahoney conducted groups in discussing Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man.

We need leaders:

Contact Tom Cox at (415)892-2310


Laura Wharton Holt Rubin

In Memoriam

To Laura, Going On

I came to the Gathering to say a last goodbye,
But there were so many others, lovers, friends,
Who came with the same intention.
We were denied the quiet place and time 
To contemplate impendings.
I promised instead--asked you to do the same--
To make a poem; you agreed with that grave smile
And touched intensity 
That have become of late your signature.
Now, as I recall the feelings for you
That I could make into a poem,
I realize you don't owe me a poem, Laura, 
Because you have turned your whole life into one:
Lyric, exuberant and beautiful.
You have become melody, a joyous music.
I can't think how to say Laura, goodbye,
For you are and will always be Laura, hello.

From our many readings and discussions shared
I cull an image that speaks to this, 
A frame of words within which 
The inexplicable is held coherent; 
A word-image that mirrors aspects amorphous
Such as life. 

The thoughts are universal, 
Belong to us all, uniquely compounded 
By your love of exact images 
And the well-turned phrase.
I give you what has come from many hearts
In search of ways expressive of the inexpressible;
The words are: We are all one.
We flow together as one whole river
Until we are separated at birth, 
And then we the river become waterfall, 
Myriad droplets singularly descending
Like a veil unfurled from a height,
Soaring separately down, several and distinct
Through yielding but arduous air,
Each droplet succinct, round; a perfect tear
Or raindrop, falling through 
Our separate, separated time
Heedless until we are reminded 
Of the prism within us,
Whereby through joyous incidence of sun
Light passes radiant through us
And our little droplets spread on air
A rainbow spectrum, glory-colored bands
That arch across our firmament...

That is--was--will be--the incidence 
Of Laura's life, an infusion all of light, 
Of splendid iridescence, effulgent hope 
And shimmering laughter,
That sound that only you could make, 
Mixed in equal parts of exultance, 
And wild joy of discovery:
Another aspect of philosophy, 
By poetry revealed, or by pain,
Of all things that make up a life: 
Childhood, marriage, adventure, bravery, love...

Soon shall we separated ones rejoin the river,
The mighty flow that is, that holds, that joins us all 
And all the worlds around us together:
Dog days and delphiniums, slumbrous mountains,
Aromatic woods, wild foreign seas and arctic wastes,
The multitudinous million-faceted reality 
That contains within, as does each droplet,
More splendor than we can now imagine.

Acres of child faces smile back at you,
Pleased with the miracle, the wonder, the One;
We shall all soar into that incidence
One by one, and cast miraculous rainbows
From within our hearts.
We shall return to and rejoin the river, 
And flow anonymous, universal, infinite, 
Become again as we were once--
One mighty endless stream, all consciousness, 
Love and beauty, flowing on forever.

The wise one said,
If you can believe another phrase
for dying--
Like going on, crossing over, or ascending--
It will change not only your life 
But the lives of all who hear it.
Salute: To you, Laura, going on. 
-- Tom Cox, 1998


Invisible Man Seen at Picnic Discussion

"Good discussion made the Invisible Man visible," said Tom Cox. Modestly I should add, as he led the group I attended, the discussion changed my mind about the book: Before, I didn’t like it; after, I wanted to reread it. I disliked the brutal, humiliating, sexual scene that starts it. The naive narrator goes to a men’s club, which has given him a scholarship for college, thinking he is to make a speech. Instead he and other male black students are turned into an exhibition. As he struggled to makes his speech, I was humiliated for him.

In picaresque style the novel follows narrator from south to north showing his experiences with race and prejudice.

As a white person reading and thinking "Can’t you see what is happening to you?" I was forced to wonder if the author was pointing out my naiveté.

And discussing it in a predominantly white group made me uncomfortable, too. Ah well, as it says on our website, the books that "bite and sting" are the Great Books.

FAQ -- A Great Books Primer

Question: I get Reading Matters, but I don’t get flyers for all of the events. Neither does my group. How do I get on the mailing list?

Answer: I asked our unsung hero, Wallis Leslie. Wallis, who maintains the database, says that for each event, the committee chair asks her for mailing labels. Reading Matters goes to everyone. So you need to let her know if you are interested in a particular event. Further, you need to let Wallis, Rick White, or the webmaster, know about new members of your groups to get them in the database. Wallis’s address is the return address on this newsletter.

Question: And the website is…..?

Answer: Our address is www.greatbooks-sf.com. The Great Books Foundation is www.greatbooks.org.



Nov. 7-8 (Sat.-Sun.) – Ralston White, Mill Valley (full).

April 9-11 (Fri. - Sun.) – Asilomar Spring Conference, Pacific Grove. Readings to be announced.

June 5-6 (Sat.-Sun.) – Poetry Weekend, Alamo. Readings to be announced.


AND WATCH FOR…(Dates to be announced)

Martin Luther King, Jr., Celebration (January)

Mini-Retreat (Spring)

Annual Picnic (May)

Special Program: "…And Justice for All" commemorating the 50th anniversary of the

UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (to be scheduled). A 150-page book of readings is to be published by GBF this November, 1998.

SAN FRANCISCO GREAT BOOKS COUNCIL -- Rick White, President; Tom Cox, Vice President; Louise DiMattio, Secretary; Grace Apple Dennison, Treasurer; Erma Browning, Past President.

Reading Matters -- Mary Wood, Editor 1001 Shoreline Dr. #207, Alameda, CA 94501 e-mail vhsh93a@prodigy.com

Rick White, Publisher.

San Francisco Great Books Council

Mailing List:

c/o Wallis Leslie
27240 Moody Road
Los Altos Hills, CA 94022