Happiness Is the Great Books Club at the Library!

If you are a lifelong reader like me, you probably have a bucket list or a to-read list of books you hope to get around to someday. Although I was an English major in college and grad school, there are still so many great books calling my name. Throughout the several decades we have lived in Huntington, I have been reading the library’s monthly newsletter describing all the wonderful activities that are available to residents, including the Great Books Club, and longing to be able to participate.

Now I am retired. Suddenly there’s a cornucopia of activities competing for my attention and my attendance. I’ve been delving into them at my own pace, like selecting from a box of chocolates. I am happily ensconced in two exercise classes.The QiGong class I find very challenging but interesting because it combines a lot of eastern tradition by focusing on the mind and the body simultaneously. The Chair Yoga class has become my favorite form of exercise each week because it is designed for creaky old people like myself who are trying hard to hang on to what they’ve got! It’s gentle and forgiving and I love the meditative music the instructor plays while we assume our modified yoga positions.

I tried out another group, Op Ed, which is a lively weekly discussion group based on current issues. Any participant is invited to suggest a topic for discussion and then the group members jump in to expound upon the topic. I noticed that some of the members are much more knowledgeable and/or articulate than others, so the discussion inevitably ended up with the same half dozen people doing most of the talking. What they had to say was always interesting, but I wasn’t sure if I would stay in the group.

Monday night I attended the Great Books Club for the first time. For me this was a big step because I wasn’t sure if I had the literature creds to be part of such an erudite group. Part of being a lit major is to always feel like you have never read enough, or you aren’t as smart as everyone else will be. (It’s sick, I know.) Besides, it has been decades since I participated in a real discussion of literature. So, with some trepidation and a lot of expectation I entered the bare basement room where the club is held. To my surprise the u-shaped table was filled with about 20 lively looking people more or less my age. There was a palpable energy in the room and there was an equal amount of men and women.

The facilitator warmly greeted the 3 or 4 newbies, including myself, and explained how the discussion is organized. Basically, he would throw out a question and anyone could answer. The important points to remember are to be a good listener and to keep the discussion focused on the text chosen for that evening. It so happens that the designated text, “A Defence of Poetry,” a selection from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, was a challenging piece of writing. I had struggled through its esoteric vocabulary and language and wondered if I was up to the task. I would not let myself quit and decided to do a “close reading” section by section to try to get as much meaning out of it as I could. (Sound familiar?) Then I reread the whole piece to get a better sense of the flow of the arguments he used. I read the piece a third time just to re-familiarize myself with it the afternoon before the club met. My understanding was not complete but I was beginning to “get it,” and looked forward to hearing what others would have to say.

Well, I wasn’t the only one who struggled. One participant admitted immediately that he had given up trying to read it. Others confessed to having to struggle but wanting to be enlightened. The discussion began, many people including myself jumped in at various points, and before I knew it an hour and a half had passed, and I had a greatly enhanced experience of the text. Toward the end of the discussion I explained that what we were doing is exactly what the Common Core curriculum currently being utilized in classrooms across the country is attempting to do: Teach students to carefully read a couple of written pieces, pick out the salient points and be able to conduct an articulate discussion comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the readings.

We all agreed that what is different about what is happening today, however, is that the lesson is scripted and the teacher does not have the freedom to choose either the reading selection or the points to be discussed but is expected to work from a prepared “module.” I pointed out that what I found amazing about this group is that we had all been educated during more or less the same period in American history, the 50′ and 60’s and our education was so good that we were able to carry on this very insightful discussion without our teachers having had to read from a script. I declared that period the “golden age” of education and we all lamented its passing (just as you would expect from a group of Boomers).

You can probably guess that I’m going to say I felt really good after this meeting. I felt back in the groove again as a student of literature, I found my reading and debating skills on a par with the other members, and I totally enjoyed learning something new. Together we had achieved a synthesis of the various arguments of the piece and an understanding of the intention of its author. I learned that I will always be happy in a classroom whether I am the learner or the teacher. But, most importantly, I felt like I had found a new home.

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4 thoughts on “Happiness Is the Great Books Club at the Library!”

  1. I just adore the image of all your new pursuits as a “box of chocolates” to pick from and it makes me so envious of all your pursuits! You earned it! I am so glad you are finding so many different things to feed your mind, body and spirit. Huntington seems like a fantastic cultural center with so many opportunities. A true teacher, you needed to tie your experience back to the classrooms and connect with “close reading.” I read part of a book on close ready by Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts that describes it just as you did- separate from artificial modules, reading and rereading with a particular lens each time but mostly because it is a text you wanted to read and reread. That is such a key point. Love this !

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  2. Isn’t it great to find a group? Especially one where you totally fit in because of your love of literature. I’m afraid I would have been one to give up on that reading and not even attended the group because I wouldn’t think I had anything to add to the conversation. Good for those who did attend. The power of conversation deepens comprehension, not filling in answers to questions on a worksheet.

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