Great Books, Enriched Minds

Every other week, a group of people who seldom see each other anywhere else meet in one another’s homes to discuss what they’ve been reading. Some of them have being doing this for 40 years.

The newest member of the group, Jack Harty, joined in 1997.

“We still call him the new guy,” 31-year-member Vince Hannity said.

Collectively, the group’s 17 members are one of two Boise chapters of the Great Books Club. Begun in 1974, it is the city’s longest-running book club with mostly original members. The term “book club” is somewhat misleading, however, because they only read one novel a year, during the summer months. The rest of the year they read texts, often obscure essays or poems. The most recent  was Jane Addams’s “Devil Baby at Hull House,” written in 1916. Hardly an Oprah’s Book Club selection.

The stereotypical image of book clubs is of friends gathering over tea and cookies to discuss popular novels. Classics occasionally are on the menu, but the fare more typically runs to best sellers. The Great Books Club is different. A few of the books its members have read through the years:  “King Lear,” “Moby Dick,” “Ivanhoe,” “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” “War and Peace” …

Texts have covered the spectrum from the Declaration of Independence to Bhagavad-Gita. Authors span the centuries from Plato to Hemingway.

When the group discussed “The Sun Also Rises” in 2007, they met at Hemingway’s onetime home in Ketchum.

The latest get-together was in Boisean Bob Bushnell’s home. Fifteen club members – seven men and eight women – turned out on a snowy night to sip wine and discuss devil babies around a candlelit table of hors d’oeuvres that went largely untouched during a lively, two-hour exchange of ideas.

Their only universal interest is reading. When one member mentioned that he was an attorney, another (between them they have over 40 years in the group) exclaimed, “Jack is a lawyer? I learn something every time I go to Great Books.”

The Great Books Foundation began in Chicago in 1947 to encourage reading and discussion of important books. Participants use a method called “shared inquiry,” in which a discussion leader poses questions meant to encourage diverse points of view, explore possible meanings and make collective discoveries.

“We’re limited to talking about what we’ve read and how we feel about it,” Hannity said. “There’s no research, no outside experts, no right or wrong answers.”

A recipe for a spirited exchange of ideas. Some excerpts from the discussion at Bushnell’s home:

“The devil baby is a metaphor for questions in our lives about why evil things happen to innocent people.”

“We can take comfort in the devil baby as a punishment, in knowing that there’s retribution.”

“I don’t think it’s a punishment.”

“You don’t think having a devil baby born in your house is a punishment?”

“I think the devil baby is a form of salvation.”

“I think the author is setting it up as the antithesis of the Christ Child.”

The discussion was animated, but not heated – affirming Hannity’s statement that there are no right or wrong answers. It reminded me of an upper-division college literature class.

Despite the intellectual tone (Nietzsche’s work was repeatedly cited), club member Diane Plastino Graves stressed that “we aren’t elitist or different from other people. We all have normal, everyday lives like everybody else.”

Several admit to having an everyday weakness for popular mystery novels.

The reason the group asked me to sit in on their normally private meetings was a hope that publicity would inspire younger readers to start their own clubs. For information on starting a Great Books Club, contact Bushnell at 336-0758 or click on

For a less rigorous regimen, there are other options. The Boise Public Library has hundreds of books specifically designated for book clubs. Its Hillcrest and Collister branches have active clubs of their own, as do The Cabin and the Rediscovered Books and Barnes and Noble stores. Clubs occasionally advertise on Facebook, Craigslist and the library’s community events bulletin board.

The rewards of belonging to a book club?

“I can’t recall a meeting where I haven’t learned something,” Great Books member Jack McMahon said. “Even a short story like ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calveras County,’ which is something like five pages. We talked about it for two hours and came up with insights I never dreamed of.”

“It’s enriched my life because I read things that I wouldn’t read otherwise,” Kay Hardy added. “It’s also an exercise in the democratic process, people coming together and expressing different opinions.”

For Bushnell, the payoff is personal. He says the club has taught him more about himself – about “how I think and feel and act.” It has “enriched my life by revealing origins and aspects of who I am and who we are.”


Tim Woodward’s column is published in the Idaho Statesman every other Sunday and is posted on the following Mondays. Contact him at




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