Book Club Profiles: Literary Discussion Group examines great authors, richness of life

The Literary Discussion Group (the title is still in flux) grew out of an offshoot of one of the first American book clubs, the Great Books Foundation. “We finished the list of books they gave us,” says Gene Waller, one of its main members, “and we wondered what to read next.”

Fortunately, discovering what to read next has kept this book club going for nearly 20 years. Currently, the discussion group, which generally numbers 8 to 12 members per meeting, bases its readings around essays and short stories.

“We found that meeting once a month was not enough for us, and that novels took too long,” says Mr. Waller. The Great Books Foundation’s list peters out early in the 20th century with a final work by Sigmund Freud, and the members wanted to keep going. They continued with a list formulated by Great Books Foundation’s founder Mortimer Adler that delved into more modern authors, then set out on their own around 1995.

The big names are all tackled: D.H. Lawrence, Faulkner, Kafka, Joyce, as well as Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Edith Wharton, Flannery O’Connor and Kurt Vonnegut. The Norton Anthology is often used, as are the series of Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays. Two to three essays or stories are assigned each week, and the members come prepared with questions.

An earlier version of the club was grounded in the Greek Classics, says Tom Lyons, who has been in the group as long as Mr. Waller. “When we made the shift to modern writers we lost some people.”

Mr. Waller brought the more modern club first to the fondly remembered Earthling Bookshop, and then to the Unitarian Church.

The group numbers among its members working and retired teachers, lawyers, tech writers, librarians, psychologists and ex-public defenders, among others. All bring their opinions and experience to the table every Wednesday.

“We all have different points of view,” Mr. Lyons says. “There is a lot of interaction, and lots of varying interpretations.”

“It’s really an exchange of ideas,” says Rex Pay, who comes to the group with his wife Elsa. “It’s the kind of discussion I grew up with in college.”

The club is open to all, but Mr. Lyons notes, “This is not a beginner’s book club. Most of us are retired, and well-traveled, and I don’t mean that you take a trip once a year. I mean well-traveled in life.”

Mr. Lyons uses as an example an essay they recently read “Notes from a Native Son,” by James Baldwin. “It talked about growing up and experiencing the riots in Harlem,” he says, “And it turned out that one of us also grew up two blocks away from Baldwin and experienced the same riots. That’s what I mean by bringing experience to the table.”

To explain the club’s philosophy, Mr. Lyons paraphrases a Greek saying: “True wisdom comes through age, through life experience. Studying alone is not sufficient.”

Members of the Literary Discussion Group gather weekly at the Unitarian Church of Santa Barbara. All are welcome, but a member cautions that it is not a “beginner’s book club.”

“Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories” Daniel Halpern, editor
Synopsis: A collection of 81 short stories from around the world, including works by James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett, Paul Bowles, Heinrich Böll, Italo Calvino, Albert Camus and Yasunari Kawabata.
Why the book was chosen: “We had been reading nothing but American writers for a while and wanted to branch out to the international. The book is full of edgy material, and not for everybody.”
Interactions: “Just bring yourself and your life experience.”

(The Literary Discussion Group meets from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays at the Unitarian Church, Classroom A, 1535 Santa Barbara St. For more information, call 965-4188.)

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