Monday, December 1, 2008

Great Books Discussion Series: Coming to Emmet O'Neal Library!

What do Aristotle, Plato, Freud, Marx, Shakespeare, Darwin, Dante,Chaucer, St. Augustine, and the authors of the Bible have in common?

They constitute a handful of the many writers included in a Great Books reading and discussion group that will begin meeting at the Emmet O'Neal library this January.

What is a Great Books reading and discussion group?

A Great Books reading and discussion group consists of a group of adults who read a series of texts - sometimes the full text and sometimes excerpts - selected by the Great Books Foundation, and who meet monthly to discuss the texts using a process called shared inquiry.
The texts represent many of the great works of philosophy, poetry, drama, and literature that have had a lasting influence on western civilization.

What is shared inquiry?
Shared inquiry is a structured process for discussing the texts. It is based on the following five guidelines:

  • Participants read the text carefully before the meeting; ideally, twice.
  • Participant's conclusions or opinions about what the writer is trying to say are supported by specific references to the text.
  • Participants do their best during the meeting to exhaust what the writer has to say about a particular subject before moving on to other areas of discussion.
  • Participants respond to each other directly - not to the discussion leader.
  • The discussion leader's role is to ask questions, not provide answers, and to keep the discussion on track by bringing participants back to the text when necessary.

What is the value of reading such old and sometimes dense texts?
These texts raise questions that are highly relevant today but often go unnoticed or - if noticed at all - are quickly forgotten or passed over.  For example:

  • What is the basis for our judgments about right and wrong or good and evil?
  • What is the source of these judgments? And should the basis for our personal judgments also serve as the basis for society's judgments?
  • What does it mean to be an individual? How much of you is determined by you, by your work, by your family, by your culture?
  • What do we mean by free will?
  • To what extent are we rational creatures? Or the converse: To what extent are we instinctual creatures?
  • Who is God? Why do we worship God, what does that mean, and what role does God play in any or all of the questions above?
  • What is truth?

The list of questions can - and will - go on and on as the group works its way through the readings.

Participants often leave a good discussion, not with answers to such questions, but with a sense of awe and wonder at their complexity and the compelling, utterly real, ambiguities they raise. A successful discussion is one where a participant says to him or herself, "Wow - I haven't really
ever thought of that in this way. I could spend the rest of my life thinking about this, and enjoy it."

Is this program too difficult for the average reader?

Absolutely not.

The program is specifically designed for the average reader. The selections, the way in which the Great Books Foundation has edited them, the suggested questions for discussion, and the principles of shared inquiry are all intended to make the readings accessible to anyone. The
readings are generally short. Sometimes, they may make little or no sense the first time you read them; but on a second reading you begin to see what the writer is trying to say - and if you don't, you come to the meeting and say, "I just don't get it."

What are the specifics concerning the group?

Meetings will take place on the second Monday night of each month from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. Meetings will be held in the conference room at the Emmet O'Neal library. Participants will take turns serving as discussion leaders.

An organizational meeting to go over things such as purchasing reading materials will be held on December 8, 2008, at 6:30 p.m. in the Emmet O'Neal library conference room. For more information, please contact Katie M. at

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