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Book discussion groups grapple with the classics

IT'S a weekday evening, and there are so many things to do. You could listen to canned laughter on your TV, or can the canned laughter onto your VCR. You could catch up with this week's laundry. You could get dressed up and pay big bucks to go hear a Bach/Handel concert. Or you could spend two hours in a room at the library talking about Plato.

Do people really still discuss Plato -- or Dostoyevsky, or anyone besides Liz Taylor and her marital prospects? Hard as it may be to believe, there still exist, outside of college, countless small groups of people willing to work through the world's great literature and discuss it thoughtfully among themselves.

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Some 40,000 of these folks sign up annually with the Great Books Foundation in Chicago, a 42-year-old program started after World War II to introduce ``ideas and values all men must grapple with in their efforts to fulfill themselves as rational, civilized human beings,'' according to a foundation brochure.

Using selections each year from 15 or 16 ``great books'' that have ``stood the test of time,'' the groups meet once or twice a month to discuss everything from Plato's ``Phaedo'' to Shaw's ``Man and Superman.'' In between, they learn to ``read more perceptively and to evaluate contemporary writing against the best that has been written in Fiction, Politics, History, Science, Philosophy, and Religion,'' says the brochure.

Great Books discussion groups usually have 18 to 30 members, and can be found in all 50 states, plus a few foreign countries. For roughly $15, the foundation provides the readings. It also gives discussion-leader training throughout the country, teaching laymen to act, as one called himself, like a ``traffic cop, there to get things moving and make sure people don't crash into each other.''

The leaders may look up major criticisms of the work being considered and write out a series of questions to discuss, but they're urged not to force their opinions on the group and to make sure that all who come have a chance to take part.

Those who attend are apt to be young and senior professionals. But, as a leader said, ``You don't need a college degree to discuss books; you just have to be willing to use your mind, something I'm not sure a lot of college graduates are doing.''

While their numbers declined in the '70s, there is some evidence that book discussion groups are making a comeback. Part of the new interest, says a librarian besieged lately with requests for reading groups, is because ``the cable TV and the VCRs have paled. People fell away briefly from books when television first came in, too,'' she says, ``until we all found out how awful it can be. I think the same thing's happening with the VCRs.''

One young lawyer attending her first Great Books discussion this year said, ``I used to read the classics in school and enjoy them, but now I find myself reading light stuff, biographies. This is a way to help me read well without having to take a course and worry about taking tests.''

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She also found it extremely helpful to hear others' perspectives on the work being discussed. ``It's the companionship that's the real draw,'' said a member of a local group. ``It gives you a chance to meet other people who like to read.''

``People make richer friendships in these groups,'' says Howard Will, a vice-president at Great Books, ``because you get to see and hear how their minds work. You see them in these groups in a way you never see them at parties.''

Groups have been formed on board ships, in offices, at libraries, in private homes, in lonely outposts, and at the center of great cities. Most welcome newcomers, although some have been carrying many of the same members for a number of years.

To get a feeling for the flavor of one of these, I recently attended a group that has been going on since 1961 in Falls Church, Va. There, in a blue, cinder-block room at the local community center, a dozen men and women had a low-key, intelligent discussion of Joseph Conrad's ``Heart of Darkness.'' In two hours, they dug through questions like: What is civilization? What is the relationship between might and morality? In a clash of cultures whose morality is the right one? Does exploitation occur if the ones being exploited are unaware of it?

These are heavy questions, and the groups tend to treat them with respect -- and with a sense of joy. ``This keeps me alive, this thinking,'' one member said. It keeps my mind working on something important.''

But while the seriousness with which people are willing to treat reading has not declined, the time they have to give it has. With these constraints in mind, the foundation plans to launch five new series this year consisting of much shorter works and excerpts.

``In years past we used to offer Melville's `Moby Dick,' for example,'' says Mr. Will, ``which weighs in at almost 600 pages. Now we've switched to `Billy Budd' -- at only 125 pages, everyone shows up for the hanging.''

The foundation also plans to target certain groups next year with readings on subjects such as education, economics, or the Bible. ``We used to try to do the whole chapter of Genesis, and it's just too much for one sitting,'' Mr. Will says. ``We could probably sustain a discussion on just the first 10 verses, comparing translations.''

Selections for all these series are picked by the foundation out of the ``blue chips,'' as Mr. Will puts it, ``works that are timeless instead of timely.'' They must be written by a respected author of the past in language a layman can understand (``which leaves out technical works''), and be ``good for discussion -- have enough ambiguity and controversy to sustain lively discussion.''

To find book discussion groups in your area, phone the reference librarian at your local library or contact area community colleges. For more information on the Great Books series, contact the Great Books Foundation, 40 East Huron Street, Chicago, Ill. 60611. Phone: (312) 332-5870.

The Great Books Foundation has a ``five-year-plan'' for its members. Each of the five series contains 15 books. If you joined this fall, you might read selections chosen from the following list. Most of the readings are excerpts from larger works. Rothschild's Fiddle, by Anton Chekhov (complete). On Happiness, by Aristotle. The Apology, by Plato (complete). Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (complete). Conscience, by Immanuel Kant. Alienated Labor, by Karl Marx. Genesis, from the Bible. Civilization and Its Discontents, by Sigmund Freud. The Social Contract, by Henri Rousseau. Moral Sense of Man and Lower Animals, by Charles Darwin. Othello, by William Shakespeare (complete). Of Justice and Injustice, by David Hume. The Power of the Majority, by Alexis de Tocqueville. Individual Freedom, by Georg Simmel. Antigone, by Sophocles (complete).

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