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. 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: The Sorrows of Young Werther Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Sorrows of Young Werther
The Sorrows of Young Werther is an epistolary, somewhat autobiographical novel published in 1774 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was one of the most important novels of the Sturm und Drang period in German literature, significantly influencing later Romanticism. It chronicles the story of a sensitive, artistic young man who demonstrates the fatal effects of a predilection for absolutes-whether those of love, art, society, or thought. Unable to reconcile his inner, poetic fantasies and ideas with the demands of the everyday world, Werther goes to the country in an attempt to restore his well-being. There he falls in love with Charlotte (Lotte), the uncomplicated fiancée of a friend. Werther leaves but later returns, feeling depressed and hopeless no matter where he lives. Torn by unrequited passion and his perception of the emptiness of life, he commits suicide. The translated title (which uses Sorrows instead of Sufferings) obscures the allusion to the Passion of Christ and individualizes what Goethe himself thought of as a "general confession," in a tradition going back to St. Augustine.

Tuesday: A Lover's Discourse, Roland Barthes

A Lover's Discourse
A Lover's Discourse: Fragments is a 1977 book by the French literary theorist, philosopher, linguist, critic, and semiotician, Roland Barthes. It contains a list of fragments, some of which come from literature and some from his own philosophical thought, of a lover's point of view. Barthes calls them "figures"-gestures of the lover at work. Barthes attempts to create a discourse about love which does not merely describe love or refer to it or analyze, novelize it, but to simulate it, to dramatize it, to recreate it. As Barthes explains: the description of the lover's discourse has been replaced by its simulation, and to that discourse has been restored its fundamental person, the I, in order to stage an utterance, not an analysis. This is not an analysis of love, but a staged utterance. We are to read it as the unmediated thoughts - discourse - of the lover himself. Barthes has created a highly original structure for this work. Taking as its model the dictionary - another work in which language is not about anything other than itself - the book consists of 80 fragments, each consisting of four elements or layers.

Wednesday: Antony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare

Antony and Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra is a tragedy by William Shakespeare. The play was first performed circa 1607 at the Blackfriars Theatre or the Globe Theatre by the King's Men. The plot follows the relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony from the time of the Sicilian revolt to Cleopatra's suicide during the Final War of the Roman Republic. The major antagonist is Octavius Caesar, one of Antony's fellow triumvirs of the Second Triumvirate and the first emperor of the Roman Empire. The tragedy is mainly set in Rome and Egypt and is characterized by swift shifts in geographical location and linguistic register as it alternates between sensual, imaginative Alexandria and a more pragmatic, austere Rome. Many consider Shakespeare's Cleopatra as one of the most complex and fully developed female characters in the playwright's body of work. Although she is frequently vain and histrionic enough to provoke an audience almost to scorn, Shakespeare nevertheless invests her and Antony with tragic grandeur. These contradictory features have led to famously divided critical responses. It is difficult to classify Antony and Cleopatra as belonging to a single genre. It has variously been described as a history play (though it does not completely adhere to historical accounts), as a tragedy (though not completely in Aristotelian terms), as a comedy, as a romance, and as a problem play.

Thursday: Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Choderlos de Laclos

Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) is a French epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos published in 1782 that is infamous for its exploration of seduction, revenge and human malice, presented in the form of fictional letters collected and published by a fictional author. Complex moral ambiguities make this one of the most scandalous and controversial novels in European literature. The letters of Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, two rivals and ex-lovers who use seduction as a weapon to socially control and exploit others, all the while enjoying their cruel games and boasting about their manipulative talents serve to drive the plot, with those of their victims and other characters serving as contrasting figures to give the story its depth.. Some say this depicts the decadence of the French aristocracy shortly before the French Revolution, thereby exposing the perversions of the so-called Ancien Régime. However, this view has been questioned. It has also been suggested that use of duplicitous characters with one virtuous face can be viewed as a complex criticism of the immensely popular naïve moral epistolary novel popular at the time. In a well-known essay, André Malraux argues that, despite its debt to the libertine tradition, Les Liaisons dangereuses is more significant as the introduction of a new kind of character in French fiction whose acts are determined by an ideology.

Friday: The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald

The Blue Flower
The Blue Flower is a historical novel by the British author Penelope Fitzgerald published in 1995. It is a fictional treatment of the early life of Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801), who under the pseudonym Novalis later became famous as a practitioner of German Romanticism. It covers the years from 1790 to 1797 when von Hardenberg was a student of history, philosophy and law at the universities of Jena, Leipzig and Wittenberg, and before he embarked on his professional life. In 1794 the twenty-two year old von Hardenberg becomes mystically attracted to the 12-year-old Sophie von Kühn, an unlikely choice for an intellectual of noble birth given Sophie's age and lack of education and culture, as well as her physical plainness and negligible material prospects. The couple become engaged a year later but never marry as Sophie dies of consumption a few days after her 15th birthday. The blue flower of the novel's title is the subject of the first chapter of a story that von Hardenberg is writing. In it, a young man longs to see the blue flower that "lies incessantly at his heart, so that he can imagine and think about nothing else". Von Hardenberg reads his draft chapter to Sophie and others, and asks "what is the meaning of this blue flower?" No definitive answer is given within the novel, leaving the reader to provide his or her own interpretation.

Saturday: Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth

Goodbye, Columbus
Goodbye, Columbus is a novella by Philip Roth that appeared in his first published volume of the same name. It won for the young writer not only the National Book Award in 1960 but also accusations, as a result of the book's comically piercing portraits of middle-class American Jews, of Roth's harboring self-hatred. The ambivalent exploration of Jewish American life and its mixed reception among Jewish readers who were sensitive to the public image of Jews established two of the central themes of Roth's fiction: a frank and often ironic look at Jewish American identity, and an intense but playful examination of the relationship between art and life. It was controversial for its irreverent look at the life of middle-class Jewish Americans, satirizing their complacency, parochialism, and materialism. The story is told by the narrator, Neil Klugman, who is working in a low-paying position in the Newark Public Library. He lives with his Aunt Gladys and Uncle Max in a working-class neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. One summer, Neil meets and falls for Brenda Patimkin, a student at Radcliffe College who is from a wealthy family living in the affluent suburb of Short Hills. Brenda signifies the American Dream, her parents' suburban prosperity symbolized by a refrigerator in the basement overflowing with fresh fruit. Neil's ambivalence toward the Patimkins' conspicuous consumption and their eager assimilation into American culture is expressed by the guilt he feels when he helps himself to fruit from the refrigerator. Although Neil finally rejects Brenda, the novella closes without offering Neil a clear sense of where he might belong.

Junior Great Book Descriptions

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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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