Great Books groups discuss works by Chekhov, Aristotle, Plato, Conrad, Kant, to name a few, which are not exactly casual reading. So while I loved the idea of reading a long book and then discussing it, I had to wonder: Am I "good enough" for "great books"? Or should I look for a group called "good books"? Or even "mediocre books"? I decided to take a chance.
The book was "The Cairo Trilogy" by Naguib Mahfouz, which follows the lives of the members of an Egyptian family from 1919 to the mid-1940s. It was not difficult reading but it was indeed long - 1,228 pages to be exact. Apparently his publisher wouldn't touch such a massive tome and insisted it be divided into three volumes. That made it perfect for the three discussion groups during the weekend, not to mention easier to carry around while reading.
I enjoyed the trilogy but didn't have time to go back and study it. I worried that this bunch of great readers would pore over it, highlighting and notating to be thoroughly ready for discussion. But I needn't have been concerned. Some of the others said they'd had difficulty finding time to read the whole thing, and a few admitted they hadn't finished the last volume. The weekend drew 40 participants, 16 new to Great Books. We were put into groups that changed for each of the two-hour discussions so we had a chance to interact with everyone.
My first session was led by Chuck, who laid down the ground rules: We were there to discuss the book, not the author; we were not to talk about our trips to Egypt or movies we'd seen, only the book; we were to have civil discourse, with no one interrupting anyone else or dominating the discussion; and we were to talk about only the first volume. Then Chuck threw out a point to discuss and we were off! When one subject began to wind down, he would suggest something about another passage or character and ask our opinions. And everyone seemed to have opinions - and insights. Sometimes when someone made a point, Chuck would raise a finger and exclaim, "Aha!" in a very satisfying, complimentary way.
The other two discussion sessions were equally intense. For six hours altogether we explored and dissected the characters and their actions and their words, the writing, and what the book had imparted to us. Mostly we followed the rule to be polite, even when two people went head to head over whether one of the main characters was a loving patriarch or an egotistical tyrant. The leaders each drew out our thoughts and perspective in their own style. They also understood if someone declined to comment and when one man, who admitted he hadn't finished the book, decided to step outside and enjoy listening to the birds for an hour instead of our discussion. It was a most satisfying experience; I'm still having new thoughts about the Trilogy and wishing I were back at Walker Creek Ranch to share them.
Great Books was founded in 1947. After World War II, record numbers headed for college but mainly focused on careers, studying engineering and the like, rather than arts and literature. But people still craved these things, and the Great Books Foundation was begun for such folks to study the classics, and to explore and share ideas.
Great Books offers regular discussion groups all over the Bay Area, plus several annual events. A Poetry Weekend will take place at Westminster Retreat in Alamo on Nov. 15-16. Someone told me she preferred the poetry events - the poems are much less time-consuming to read than the long novel and the discussions are wonderful, whether you like poetry or not. I've never read poetry for pleasure, but I love the idea of more stimulating discussions and analysis so I just might go. Wanna come? Check it out at www.greatbooks-sf.com.
-Dolores Fox Ciardelli can be e-mailed at editor@DanvilleWeekly.com.