What is truth? How shall we become wise? Why does the phone ring every time I take a bath?
If you're a human being, you ask questions. Some of these questions are of little consequence. Others are broader, more universal.
Books can be divided into similar categories. Today's publishers are looking for "blockbusters," glitzy soups of sex and money, soon-to-be-major-motion-pictures packaged in glossy paperbacks and displayed at the grocery store checkout counter. Such books do account for a lot of business, at libraries as well as the commercial trade outlets. And why not? Popular fiction is fun and can be relaxing.
But most of the blockbusters are surprisingly transient. They get hyped onto the bestseller list, the authors make appearances on a score of national talk shows -- and five years later, no one remembers either the books or the authors.
Other books stick around, resurfacing year after year, sometimes century after century. The test is simple: classics last. And they insinuate themselves into our minds, changing the way we look at the world and ourselves.
Classics have long been used to challenge minds of every age, to introduce them to the big questions of life and to map out the conceptual course of a culture. The Great Books Program, founded by the University of Chicago several decades ago, subscribes to this grand tradition.
In a Great Books session, a "leader" meets with a group of students (classes drawn from grades 4-12, or groups of interested adults) to discuss a classic selection. The leader's job is to keep people talking by doing what Socrates did -- asking questions.
What did the author say about some of the broad issues we all must face -- for example, dealing with death or betrayal? Do you agree with what the author said? Why? Does this book affect you or the way you live your life? If so, how?
There are no right answers. There aren't any grades. The idea isn't to get you to agree with anybody. The idea is to get you to think. The Great Books people call this a "shared inquiry."
It happens that a local woman named Linda Loudon would like to start a Great Books program in Castle Rock. At the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock, on Monday, August 2nd, at 7 p.m., she'll have an information meeting. I'm hoping that she'll be able to gather a goodly group of interested readers.
The people that decide to participate will be tackling twelve pieces of literature over the next year, including selections by Sigmund Freud, Thucydides, Adam Smith, Claude Bernard, Flannery O'Connor, and Joseph Conrad.
There is a cost. You have to pay $8.95 (plus shipping and handling), which buys you a book that has all the selections in it. But you get to keep it. You can even take notes in it, although personally, I have never been able to bring myself to do that.
There are a few other costs, too. All participants are asked to make three other commitments:
* to read the selection twice before each (probably monthly) meeting;
* to share areas that were confusing, conflicting, or sparked a question;
* to come to all twelve sessions.
As I have written before, education is not something done to you, it's something you do for yourself, and it doesn't stop when somebody hands you a piece of paper.
If you'd like to converse with some of the finest minds in history, maybe this is just the opportunity you've been looking for.