About Great Books at Colby

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Great Books at Colby is our annual week of lively discussion at Colby College. We are a community of people who enjoy reading and discussing good books.

Have you ever closed a book after reading the last page and wished you could share your thoughts with someone? Colby offers an opportunity to collaborate in discovering insights rarely achieved just reading alone. Located on a beautiful campus, the college has a great library, the admission free Colby Museum of Art, a bookstore, tennis courts and first-class athletic facilities with a swimming pool, as well as waterfront property at a nearby lake open to Great Books participants. It offers an inexpensive but classy vacation where readers who love to think and talk about the world’s great literary works can derive pleasure from spending time with others who share that enthusiasm. For two hours each day, readers discuss their understanding of thought-provoking classics through the Great Books Foundation’s Shared Inquiry Method. Our focus this year is on The Search for Meaning. Man’s recognition of his mortality and repeated confrontation with the trials and tribulations of human existence invariably initiate a quest for meaning. Join us in examining how these great writers view this process.

Registration covers books and discussions, as well as lectures, films, group social activities, use of the athletic facilities and tennis courts, and a real Maine lobster bake. On campus registration includes a single or double dormitory room (six nights: Sunday through Friday) and all meals. You can stay over Saturday night either before the week (July 16th) or after the week (July 23rd) for an additional charge. Either night allows you to attend the Atlantic Music Festival’s outstanding free classical music concert. We also offer a Children’s Program for ages three and above. Commuters participate in all activities, but live on their own, off-campus, and receive lunch each day and the Friday night lobster bake.

The Books

Adult Selections

Monday: Man's Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl

Man's Search for Meaning
This psychology classic from 1946 chronicles Frankl’s experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II, and describes his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then immersively imagining that outcome. According to Frankl, the way a prisoner imagined the future affected his longevity. The book intends to answer the question "How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?" Part One constitutes Frankl's analysis of his experiences in the concentration camps, while Part Two introduces his ideas of meaning and his theory called logotherapy.

Tuesday & Wednesday: The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann

The Magic Mountain
With this dizzingly rich novel of ideas, Thomas Mann rose to prominence as one of the great modern novelists, ultimately garnering the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. In this masterpiece, Mann uses a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps – a community devoted exclusively to sickness – as a microcosm for Europe, which prior to 1914 was already exhibiting the first symptoms of its own terminal irrationality.

To this hermetic yet intrigue-ridden world comes Hans Castorp, a “perfectly ordinary” young man who arrives for a short visit and ends up staying seven years. Here, Hans will succumb both to the lure of eros and to the intoxication of ideas. This contemporary translation by John Woods is a monumental work of erudition and irony, sexual tension and intellectual ferment, a novel that pulses with life in the midst of death.

Thursday: A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr

A Month in the Country
In this deeply charged poetic novel, Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War and a broken marriage, arrives in the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby to restore a recently discovered medieval judgment in the local church. Living in the bell tower, surrounded by the resplendent countryside of high summer, and laboring each day to reveal an anonymous painter’s extraordinary depiction of the apocalypse, Birkin finds that he himself has been restored to a new and hopeful, attachment to life. In his later reflection on the passage of time and the power of art, Birkin discovers in his memories some consolation for all that has been lost.

Friday: The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen

The Snow Leopard
In 1973, Peter Matthiessen and field biologist George Schaller travelled high into the remote mountains of Nepal to study the Himalayan blue sheep and possibly glimpse the rare and beautiful snow leopard. Matthiessen, a student of Zen Buddhism, was also on a spiritual quest, to find the Lama of Shey at the ancient shrine on Crystal Mountain. As the climb proceeds, Matthiessen charts his inner path as well as his outer one, with a deeper Buddhist understanding of reality, suffering, impermanence, and beauty.

Saturday: Wit: A Play, Margaret Edson

Wit: A Play
In this extraordinary drama, Margaret Edson has created a work as intellectually challenging as it is emotionally immediate. At the start of Wit, Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., a renowned professor of English who has spent years studying and teaching the brilliantly difficult Holy Sonnets of the metaphysical poet, John Donne, has been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. Her approach to her illness is not unlike her approach to the study of Donne: aggressively probing and intensely rational. But during the course of her illness – and her stint as a patient in an experimental chemotherapy program at a major teaching hospital – Vivian comes to reassess her life and her work with a profundity and humor that are transformative both for her and her audience.

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Shared Inquiry—Discussion Guidelines

In shared inquiry, participants discuss fundamental questions raised by the text and help one another assess answers.  Participants come to a discussion with their own unique ways of viewing the selection, then build on that by sharing their ideas.

Discussion leaders provide direction and guidance by asking questions for which they genuinely do not know the answer. Questions are based on the text but the leader is not an expert. The group should not look to him or her for answers. 

Four Principles of a Shared Inquiry Discussion:

  • Only those who have read the selection may take part in discussion because participants who have not read the selection cannot support their opinions with evidence from the text, nor can they bring knowledge of the text to bear on the opinions of others.
  • Discussion is restricted to the selection that everyone has read.  This rule gives everyone an equal chance to contribute because it limits discussion to a selection familiar to all participants. 
    When the selection is the sole focus of discussion, everyone can determine whether facts are accurately recalled and opinions adequately supported.
  • Support for opinions should be found within the selection.  Participants may introduce outside opinions only if they can restate the opinions in their own words and support the ideas with evidence from the selection. 
    This rule encourages participants to read carefully and think for themselves.
  • Leaders only ask questions—they do not answer them.  Leaders help themselves and participants understand a selection by asking questions that prompt thoughtful inquiry.
    The leader assists the group by asking follow-up questions—questions that encourage participants to clarify comments, support ideas with evidence from the reading, and comment on proposed interpretations.

Discussions will be richer and more productive if you remember to:

  • Temper the urge to speak with the discipline to listen
  • Substitute the impulse to teach with a passion to learn
  • Hear what is said and listen for what is meant
  • Marry your certainties with others’ possibilities
  • Reserve judgment until you can claim understanding

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A Brief History of Great Books

“If democracy is going to function as it should, the man-in-the-street is going to have to think better.”—Robert Maynard Hutchins

“There is no list with a capital L. The great books are simply the books which deal most incisively, most eloquently, most universally, and most timelessly with man and his world.”—Milton Mayer


Passionate readers meeting to discuss enduring ideas—that was the vision shared in the 1940s by two University of Chicago educators, Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. For at least two decades, Hutchins and Adler had been focusing on reform in higher education to counter what they saw as the decline of liberal arts education in the face of more and more specialization.

Their vision was a simple prescription for a nation increasingly interested in the role of higher and continuing education in a democracy: The best way to gain a liberal education in or out of the university, they argued, is to discuss the writings of the world’s great thinkers.

Since 1930, Adler had been leading a Great Books discussion group for adults in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago. In 1943 he recruited prominent Chicago businessmen and their wives to participate in a series of discussions in downtown Chicago, to experience for themselves the Great Books method, a text-based seminar that would later be formalized as “Shared Inquiry.”

The group, which came to be known as “The Fat Men’s Great Books Group,” attracted some of the city’s most influential public figures who clamored for the privilege to discuss Aristotle and Locke with Adler and Hutchins.

The ensuing publicity led to the creation of a Great Books continuing education program at the University of Chicago (later the Basic Program) and eventually to a workshop at the Chicago Public Library, where 70 librarians and others were trained as discussion leaders to start their own groups. Similar workshops were held in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, New York, and Seattle, and the University of Chicago was deluged with inquiries from individuals, clubs, and labor unions.

Formalizing a Movement

In 1947, Hutchins and Adler established a nonprofit organization, the Great Books Foundation, to support the new wave of interest and to promote lifelong education through the reading and discussion of the world’s great literature.

Their aim was to encourage Americans from all walks of life to participate in a “Great Conversation” with the authors of some of the most significant works in the Western tradition.

To reach the widest possible audience, the Foundation published inexpensive paperback editions of its recommended readings, many of which were out of print or available only in expensive editions.

Robert Hutchins was chairman of a distinguished and singularly committed board of directors that included, among others, Mortimer Adler; Garret L. Bergen, vice president of Marshall Field; the Reverend John J. Cavanaugh, president of the University of Notre Dame; Norman Cousins, editor of The Saturday Review of Literature; author and critic Clifton Fadiman; author Clare Boothe Luce; and E. H. Powell, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The Foundation’s stated objective was to provide the means of a genuine liberal education for all adults. An early annual report reflected the belief, or hope, that thousands or even millions of people would join together for small group discussions that foster the “noble work of self-improvement.”

By December 1949, an estimated 50,000 people in thousands of book discussion groups were meeting regularly in public libraries, homes, churches, and synagogues.

Junior Great Books

Extending the Great Books program to younger readers was a natural outgrowth of the mission of reading for all, and within a few years, Great Books programs cropped up in high schools and even elementary schools. Following successful pilots in Detroit and elsewhere, the Foundation launched the Junior Great Books program in 1962, offering five boxed sets of paperback books for grades 5-9.

Slow to start, the program got a tremendous boost when the Junior League of Chicago became a sponsor and placed hundreds of volunteers in schools to lead discussion groups. Within two years an estimated 48,000 children were enrolled in 3,200 groups in public and private schools across the country.

Initially, most of the selections in the Junior program were works from the adult program, shorter works of Virgil and Tolstoy, for example, and excerpts from Pilgrim’s Progress and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. With each new edition, though, the program’s range of literature was broadened to include more folktales, children’s classics, and respected contemporary works.

The program was also expanded to include younger readers. The 1975 and 1984 editions of Junior Great Books added literature for grades 2-4, and in 1991, Junior Great Books Read-Aloud brought the program’s outstanding literature to pre-readers and beginning readers in kindergarten and first grade.

From the beginning, Junior Great Books demonstrated that even very young children can handle the complex tasks asked of them in Shared Inquiry. Still, throughout the eighties, most programs in schools served students who were already reading well.

In response, in 1992 the Foundation introduced a major expansion of the program that integrated reading, writing, and discussion. The new Junior Great Books Curriculum made it easier for schools to incorporate Great Books into the mainstream reading and language arts curriculum.

Reaching New Audiences

Today, more than one million students participate in Junior Great Books programs in thousands of schools, and recent new editions of the program—Great Books 3–5 in 2007 and the new Great Books Roundtable® for grades 6-8, due in 2010—reach an expanding circle of students and teachers.

At the same time, the Foundation continues its support for hundreds of adult groups across America as well. Every year the Foundation hosts Great Books Chicago to gather dedicated readers for three days of discussion and cultural programming. Ten regional councils flourish and thousands of non-affiliated groups and readers enjoy our increasingly diverse publications.

The Foundation’s anthologies have for many years embraced literature beyond the Western tradition, including many more women authors, a wide range of international writings, and even graphic fiction. Increasingly, the Foundation’s titles are being used in college courses across the country.

The Foundation has always reached out to new audiences. In 1995, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded the Foundation a major grant for A Gathering of Equals, a National Conversation project based on the premise that Shared Inquiry is a powerful model for civil discourse in a democratic society.

Stressing diversity, the project resulted in hundreds of discussions of seminal documents in American history in cities throughout the country. In 2001, the Foundation introduced a quarterly magazine, The Common Review, to promote original writing by established and emerging literary writers, critics, and poets.

Always striving for greater inclusiveness, the Foundation is now working with Middle Tennessee University and other organizations to introduce Great Books groups in prisons in Tennessee and Mississippi.

After almost seventy years, the work of the Great Books Foundation continues to build upon the founders’ insistence on timeless literature and the palpable benefits of discussion.

The Foundation continues to publish literature and create programs that encourage people to think and talk about perennial questions: What does it mean to be human? What is a just society? What is the best way to live a good life?

As an organization, the Foundation has not rested on its historical achievements and instead continues to seek new, more inclusive ways to interpret and fulfill our mission: to empower readers of all ages to become more reflective and responsible thinkers.

“Reading one great book makes reading another easier, and the more we read through the great books or in them, the easier reading them well becomes. They gradually draw us into the great conversation they have created and thereby increase our power to converse with them, as well as our power to conduct the dialogue that must go on in our own minds whenever we are engaged in a genuine learning.” - Mortimer Adler

What is the Great Books Foundation?

The Great Books Foundation is a nonprofit educational corporation that provides a lifelong program of self-education. In 1947 Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler established the Great Books Foundation to give all people an opportunity to join in conversation of our basic beliefs and ideas through reading and discussion. This was the beginning of the Great Books Program that now has councils, institutes, and discussion groups across this country and abroad.

What are the Great Books?

The Great Books Program combines the opportunity to read books you have always wanted to read but never seemed to have the time for, with a method called Shared Inquiry.

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