What’s better than reading a really “great” book?
For the members of the Great Books Discussion Group at New Cumberland Public Library, it’s reading at least parts of one, and then getting together to talk about it.
The group, which formed more than 50 years ago, is based on the Great Books Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization that started in 1947 at the University of Chicago to promote critical thinking and social and civic engagement of readers. The original idea of Great Books was that reading the collection of about 100 books would result in a well-rounded person.
Some readers have been members for more than 20 years, and with a current roster of 14, the club welcomes new readers, said member Tony Guida of Lower Paxton Twp. The day meeting time does attract many retired people to the group, but Guida believes there are lots of potential members out there.
“I’m not saying it will go viral, but there is a place for this sort of thing,” he said. “I'm amazed by people who seem like Renaissance people and do all the things regular people do, but who have this extra gear,” Guida said. “There is talent all around us…It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have. All you need is an interest in books.”
The group picks the selections they will read each season, which are usually from the Great Books’ anthologies. For this session, the authors range from Mark Twain to John Locke in a Conversation Series book.
“In this group you only have to read 20 to 30 pages, so most can find time to do that in the two-week period,” said Dan Tepsic, group coordinator. “It’s hard in this day and age to read a novel in two weeks,” he said. “I have trouble finding time to do that.”
Among the current members are a retired lawyer, accountant and social worker, someone who once studied at Oxford, and several who have no formal education beyond high school.
“I like to read and I like to discuss what I read,” said Lauretta Lombardo of Camp Hill, a retired educational administrator who joined the group about 14 years ago.
Louise Hutchinson of Hershey, a former dietician, has more of a science than literature background. “I came here to catch up, since my education didn’t include those literature courses,” she said.
“I’ve been reading Great Books for about 25 years,” said Bill Miller, a retired lawyer, who led the Sept. 11 discussion on H.G. Wells’ story, “The Man Who Could Work Miracles.” Members take turns leading the discussion, taking the lead from questions in the Great Books’ guide.
Miller said the group introduced him to some works he probably wouldn’t have read otherwise, including graphic novels. He also is a member of another book club at the library that meets the first and third Monday nights at the library, which follows a somewhat different format for discussions.
The H.G. Wells story was about a man who found he could will things to happen, and brought about chaos when he caused the earth to stop turning. The members had a spirited two-hour discussion about what the story was really about. For Guida, it was "wishes and their implications,” while Lombardo read into it a theme of leaders abusing power, as well as a satire on religion.
Rick DeLuca, a retired English and philosophy professor, went so far as to say he didn’t think it was a very good piece of literature, and questioned why it was in the book in the first place.
Even though some of the Great Books were written hundreds of years ago, Lombardo said many transcend time. “We discuss them as if they were written yesterday, and ask if these ideas in these characters still exist today. Are they prominent in human nature?” Lombardo said. If not, that sometimes leads to the most controversy in discussions, she added.
Tepsic said what attracted him to the group about 20 years ago was the chance to discuss “all the great thinkers of the past – philosophers, political theorists, great novelists.”
“To me it’s almost like being in college again and discussing the great themes of life…It’s almost like attending a seminar, I guess is the best way to describe it,” Tepsic said.
“These themes might have been written many, many years ago, but in terms of human conduct they are still relevant today. That’s what particularly interesting – how it applies in today’s society.”
Members agree to disagree, within reason. “We don’t want to ruin a good friendship,” Guida added. “All opinions are welcome. There are no ill feelings, but a little heat is sometimes welcome,” Tepsic said.
Four years ago, Guida said he was getting ready to retire, and was looking for some new things to do. He thought he had a pretty good liberal acts background, but found there was a lot of classic literature he hadn’t read before.
“It was a real pleasure to meet these people and have this kind of discussion, and find out there are all these kindred spirits out there,” he said. “It fulfilled something for me. I like how these people have such inquiring minds,” Guida said.
A Great Books group has also formed at Cleve Fredricksen Library in Camp Hill, which meets at 10 a.m. Wednesdays, said director Bonnie Goble. It uses compilations of short stories, she said, and is currently full.
IF YOU GO
What it is: New Cumberland Library Great Books Discussion Group
Where: 1 Benjamin Plaza, New Cumberland
When: 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., second and fourth Wednesdays of each month