Will I go? Of course.

Toni,

I find it easy to say what’s wonderful about Colby Great Books to another Great Books person. To tell someone who’s never participated in Great Books about it is another matter.

Thinking about how to do this, I realized what fun I would have describing Colby to my bird-watcher friends and my marathon-runner/biker friends.

My bird-watcher friends take time off from work and put aside other pleasures when the warblers come through. They train their binoculars on details of who is flying by, and who pauses to eat some dogwood berries or to drink at the bird bath.

They make notes of their observations to remind themselves of what they’ve seen and so that they can compare their observations with those of fellow birdwatchers.

Our readings for Colby call for similarly absorbed attention.

Many bird enthusiasts travel to see birds, enjoying both the company of other bird-watchers they meet and the places they go for bird-watching. Like traveling bird-watchers, those coming to Great Books at Colby enjoy the lovely campus and the friendship of others who share the quest.

With my marathon-runner/biker friends, I share the excitement of getting a second and even a third wind, pressing on through works that sometimes seem difficult to conquer, usually only one of these each year—Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Locke’s On Human Understanding come to mind—and making it through!

Perhaps I could have read them on my own, but the knowledge that others will be sitting around a table with me to share the outcome of their effort has spurred me on time and again. The week itself is something of a hexathalon: six works to be discussed in six days.

Although we have many months to read them, most demand rereading and it’s a vigorous effort! Typically, the styles of the works are highly varied, including poetry, drama, philosophical essays and novels. As in a sports triathlon, the changes of pace and the different mental muscles called upon by each work provide a full imaginative work-out during the week.

The week beginning with the first Sunday in August has come to be marked in my calendar for Colby. Returning each year brings shared memories of works read in previous years, like remembered glimpses of unusual feathered beauties on the wing, and the promise of yet another stimulating set of mental exercises and adventures in our discussions of the new year’s works.

>> Back to Top

Colby is the quintessential New England Campus

Arthur

Why do I keep going back to Colby every August?

The warmth of everyone I have met at Colby in the thirty-plus weeks I have been there: old friends, instant interesting new ones. Discussions of ideas in and out of book discussions.

Colby is the quintessential New England Campus, simply beautiful to stroll. Lots of excellent facilities for tennis, swimming, fitness center workouts and a quiet lake for swimming and picnics. 

Musical activities, an excellent theme-related film night. Did I leave out three meals a day in a sunny, youth-filled dining common with unlimited quantity and uncommon quality? And that's just the beginning.

When we should have been exhausted we were invigorated!

Rose

I was forty and married with children when I first went to Great Books at Colby. Friends from my Long Island book group suggested I take a break, leave the kids with my husband and go with them to Waterville Maine. After the soul searching and the negotiations, I packed my bag and headed North.

The theme that year was "Man and his Religions" with books that were both wonderful and hard. The leaders were from the Chicago Great Books organization, the mother ship if you will, and professionally trained. For me, hearing their questions, watching them work as our discussions progressed, was a lesson in itself and helped me years later when I became a leader in my own right in New York.

Their mission was to spread the influence of the Great Books nationally. They succeeded with me.

But my thinking was not that lofty. My primary aim was to have fun. And we had fun. There were informal meetings every night after dinner with wine and cheese and more. The combination of seriousness with wit was beyond anything I might have imagined. That took pressure off the obvious seriousness of the works themselves.

After the morning discussions, I drove with friends almost every day exploring the area around Colby and Waterville, widening our range each day. What an extraordinary place in the country with a Shakespeare theater, a music camp, string quartets, and of course, Maine.

I planned to go back the next year but my life became more full than ever—I went to college; I earned my teaching degree; my husband and I were divorced; and the demands of my growing children took precedence over everything.

After 17 years I went back and have been going back every August. Emergencies or unexpected events made me miss a week here and there but Great Books at Colby was on my calendar that first week in August from then to now.

You asked me what my expectations had been. To tell you the truth, I didn't think I was very smart. I was afraid I couldn't keep up. But the group was not just thoughtful, it was patient. The people there we're respectful. No one ever asked me what I did. They were interested in two things—who I was then-and-there and what the books were saying to us.

Learning together with no one lecturing made all the difference in the world. At the end of a discussion session—they ran from 10 to 12 every morning—when we should have been exhausted we were invigorated! Learning was never like this.

Great Books at Colby expanded my world, became a part of my life. Not just the ideas from those classics but the process of learning, too.

Another thing about this experience was that it polished my brain. Working on ideas with others was like lifting weights. Our brains felt newer and better from the exercise. I got better and better at being able to explain concepts. So the week was not just exploring ideas and laughing. I found myself practicing what others had taught me.

Now I'm a leader of a group in New York City. When our first group formed, the process of shared inquiry was a learning experience. Because I had been to Colby for so many years I saw how it works — how well it works. Once the process clicked in for all of us, our discussions became exciting. I could see and feel the difference in our conversations. Everyone did.

My reward? The fact I had carried some of what I learned at Colby and passed that on to others. My new friends from Colby helped dispel those nasty demons in my head who had said over and over I just wasn't smart enough. No one "taught" in those discussions. We learned from each other. That's the whole point of shared inquiry.

Like the books we read, the meanings and benefits from Colby are complex. Most often those meanings become clear only from the reflected understanding of those who lovingly share their learning with others.

>> Back to Top

So much stimulation, good friends . . . I even found a husband

Ocie.

I have been a member of a Great Books group since the late 1970's.  I am pretty sure that I learned to read on my first day in school and I know that I never quit loving the adventure.

 

As I grew up, I found more and more books to read.  At last, I was fully employed and mothering two young children, and my reading list was getting longer and longer. (That hasn't changed.)   I was not making reading time for myself until I joined a GB group where I had responsibility to other people to be prepared to participate in the discussions.

 

The discussions were often clarifying—such as when I wondered what in the world there was that led us to include that reading—sometimes lots of fun, usually satisfaction of intellectual content, and always the finer points of readings that only a discussion with mutually interested people can produce.

  

At Colby we discuss philosophy as produced by the ancients to the most modern; great novels, again, from the ancient to the modern; science, poetry, the arts in general.  It is truly another step along the way to becoming educated, or just well pleased.

 

The week at Colby offers good food and plenty of it as well as access to the entire beautiful campus and activities from the swimming pool, tennis courts, walking trails, library and the arts.  There is a lovely art museum on campus, a good movie house in nearby Waterville, and a live theatre in Monmouth, which specializes in Shakespeare.

      

After a number of years in my local GB group, I registered for a week long seminar at Colby College.  As I've said, it was intense.  It is the only vacation that I "cram" for.  It is also exhilarating and offers more than only discussions of literary treatises.  It is different from my everyday life.  I've always felt refreshed after the Colby Week.

Personally, I have enjoyed attending the week that offers so much stimulation, good friends to travel with, making more friends, and I even found a husband. 

>> Back to Top

The Road Less Traveled Becomes The Road Well Traveled

Paul

 It seems I've lived my whole life by happenstance—when you think you're making real choices but you know you're really not.

So a few years back, I meandered into a bookstore picked up a travel mag that gave me a list of vacation opportunities with an intellectual bent (whatever that meant) and one of them was situated in Maine—Great Books at Colby College.

I had hit the Trifecta—an appeal to my pseudo-intellectual pretenses, an opportunity with my wife to visit her brother in the south of Maine and to touch base with my best friend in graduate school who lived in central Maine.

We went to Colby first, a pleasant meandering drive from Philadelphia with absolutely no knowledge of what the Colby experience entailed. We did not belong to a book discussion group and certainly not a Great Books type group.

We had read the books in advance as advised and that was it. Great Books at Colby as an Experience . . . Well, that was another thing!

I'm a psychologist, so any new experience is always going to be "about the people." My new Great Books colleagues were well read, on occasion well bred, and certainly not intellectually dead. And always welcoming.

Ideas about the books were discussed during group sessions and continued thereafter. Voila! Ongoing collaborators and not a one of them was a pseudo-intellectual! The experience was integrated with a potpourri of optional endeavors and we particularly enjoyed the music camp, which is coincidental with Great Books. I think that was because we were enjoying the new experience of Great Books to the same degree that the music camp teenagers were enjoying their new colleagues.

I had a conversation with my daughter recently and I asked her if she believed in God. She's a real scientist, not a psychologist, so it was not necessarily a surprise when she said that every once in a while there is a confluence of events that when she takes them together there seems to be present a "bright light" that gives her pause.

My visit to Maine was for me such a confluence—brother-in-law, best friend from grad school, and, of course, Colby. But only Colby and the Great Books experience there became for me my "bright light." It became the road well traveled, my True North from which once a year I never meander.

>> Back to Top

Colby is an opportunity to read books that circumscribe our human condition

Roger

I have been going to the Colby Great Books week for 35 years. I enthusiastically look forward to this experience, which is an opportunity to read books that circumscribe our human condition, and expand my awareness of what it means to be human.

There is nothing more satisfying than to bring my reading of a book to the group, and through discussion, gain a larger understanding of the book and usually the larger human condition. This experience of gaining a greater awareness of our common humanity is for me the rich reward of the Colby Great Books Week.

The word "Colby" has become magical

Grace

My first Great Books summer experience was in 1957 when it was held at Williams College in Massachusetts. I had been doing quite a bit of soul searching, trying to find some meaning to my existence.

My experience that summer was overwhelming.

 

The theme was "Great Issues in Faith" which lent itself to a lot of introspection. There was much enthusiasm on the campus. Many of the attendees had been to institutes before and the atmosphere was one of joy and friendship. I came away hoping to be a part of this wonderful experience again.

The next year the Institute was held at Colby where it's been ever since. In the early days we were completely wrapped up in the readings, and I remember fondly groups of us sitting on the banks of Johnson Pond, under the willow trees, reading aloud to one another.

As time went by our attitudes seemed to change as we got to know more people and expanded our activities. I was particularly pleased to hear about the New England Music Camp just a few miles away and we started attending the Wednesday night faculty concerts.

 

For some years the original Hungarian String Quartet was in residence on campus and we got to hear some truly lovely music, although I could have done without the Bartok. In the early years at Colby it was not unusual to see Pierre Monteux around.  He did some of the Metropolitan Opera auditions there.

One truly wonderful experience for me was being allowed to play the organ in the chapel.  I did that for several years, usually by myself, but often friends would join me and we would play and sing hymns. One summer we practiced the wedding march for my friend whose daughter was getting married later that summer.

Throughout the years—and there have been many for me—there has been that "Colby magic" that pervades the campus when we are there.  Without us, it doesn't exist.

Over the years, as we have come to know one another, we have become close. The newcomers throughout the years have added to the experiences that are "Colby". For many of us regulars, the word "Colby" has become a magical word that means far more for us than the college, the campus or the place.

It is more than a destination. It is a time that rejuvenates our spirits. It is an experience that transcends friendships. It is where we are refreshed each year such that when we leave after a week there, we feel better able to live in a world that is terribly confusing with its complications.

I feel it is the readings that bind us together. Without them it would be just another vacation, which is all right, but the Colby week is so much more than that.  It is the joy of walking the paths with those you know and have grown to love, the discussions anywhere you go, be it outdoors, in the dining room, or a gathering in someone's room.  The parties and fellowship are part of the whole picture.

What was very important for me, coming from the corporate world, was knowing that I was accepted and loved for being me, and that I didn't have to live up to anyone's expectations of the moment. Self esteem may be a term overused but it was the feeling of growth and self esteem that blossomed for me at Colby. And I owe my current satisfaction and happiness to my Colby years.

   

I treasure the friendships and the memories of so many who are no longer with us.  I feel their presence when we are on the campus.  Those whose ghosts are present and those who are still with us, are part of the Colby experience.  Not much could be richer.

One truly wonderful experience for me was being allowed to play the organ in the chapel. I did that for several years, usually by myself, but often friends would join me and we would play and sing hymns. One summer we practiced the wedding march for my friend whose daughter was getting married later that summer.

Throughout the years, and there have been many for me, there has been that "Colby magic" that pervades the campus when we are there. Without us, it doesn't exist.

Over the years, as we have come to know one another, we have become close. The newcomers throughout the years have added to the experiences that are "Colby". For many of us regulars, the word "Colby" has become a magical word that means far more for us than the college, the campus or the place. It is more than a destination. It is a time that rejuvenates our spirits. It is an experience that transcends friendships. It is where we are refreshed each year such that when we leave after a week there, we feel better able to live in a world that is too often terribly confusing with its complications.

I feel it is the readings that bind us together. Without them it would be just another vacation, which is all right, but the Colby week is so much more than that. It is the joy of walking the paths with those you know and have grown to love, the discussions anywhere you go, be it outdoors, in the dining room, or a gathering in someone's room. And the parties and fellowship are part of the whole picture.

What was very important for me, coming from the corporate world, was knowing that I was accepted and loved for being me, and that I didn't have to live up to anyone's expectations of the moment. Self esteem may be a term overused but it was feeling of growth and self esteem that blossomed for me at Colby and I owe my current satisfaction and happiness to my Colby years. I treasure the friendships and the memories of so many who are no longer with us. I feel their presence when we are on the campus. Those whose ghosts are present and those who are still with us, are part of the Colby experience. Not much could be richer.

>> Back to Top

Discussion among group members is a joy in itself

Aaron

The enticement of Colby for me is that I must do the work to be prepared either to lead or to participate. I've been both and both are equally rewarding.

The daily discussions are a spiritual reward when they rise to the level of critical examination that unveils ideas that others and I had not thought of. This becomes possible at Colby because all the participants are prepared and use the guidelines for a Great Books discussion. I find both leading and participating exciting and unique experiences. The joys from each are not mutually exclusive.

As a leader, the process of forming questions to open avenues of discussion among group members is a joy in itself. That makes the weeks of development worth it in every way.

As a participant, to share with the others newfound understandings of the text through the use of shared inquiry principles that lead to inspiring discussions is the reward.

In a word, that is a "happening" unique to Colby where those who experience the discussions with their fellows really want to hear what you think.

When a session "works", I experience the satisfaction from working within a group formed just for that day. We are a team working together searching for meaning and ideas. If the questions I ask, or the discussions I take part in work, I can recognize for myself that the time and effort I put in to be prepared was more than ever worthwhile. 

In both processes the ingredient that energizes the movements is a feeling of respect, care and love for your fellows.

The joy is, of course, bitter sweet, as that group, as such, will never exist again.

>> Back to Top

One question has kept me returning for thirty years

Tim

My first day at Colby began Sunday afternoon as I crossed the Maine/New Hampshire border driving north, my bike on top of the car. Wildflowers of every color flooded the median and birches flanked both sides. The white of the birches was set-off by Maine's rich green pines. Queen Anne's Lace stood at the edges of the highway stretching to Canada.

I was in my early forties with pressures, a demanding job, a mortgage —- all the trappings of suburban life. Though I looked forward to the discussions, I was prepared to be disappointed. The bike was my safety valve. If I didn't like the discussions, I reasoned, I would at least enjoy the Maine countryside while staying at the cheapest "resort" around, a Colby College dorm room. I had mapped the roads I might take hoping that one or more of them might warn me "Danger Moose Crossing."

I had met Evelyn about two years before. She was one of several men and women from my neighborhood who met regularly to discuss the Great Books. Evelyn and her friends Arthur and Be Be who had founded my group in DC suggested I join them in Maine. It took about 18 months but they finally convinced me.

I turned into the Colby campus after a two-hour drive. My first view of the campus was a pond ringed with weeping willows. Not a bad start.

I signed in, received my packet explaining the what's and where's of the week, and followed the directions to the dorm that would be my home for a week.

Sunday night after dinner was devoted to getting to know each other, all 250 of us it seemed from the crowd in the Wachs recreation center. With wine, dancing, and a great piano player we formed groups talking about the books, our expectations for the week, and what there was to do besides the books. There was a lot to look forward to.

Monday morning at ten o'clock our first discussion of Plato's Republic began. Fifteen of us sat around an oval table. Carol was our leader for that day. She asked a question. No one jumped in to answer. There was just this silence. Thinking silence.

After a bit the woman next to me pointed us to a paragraph on a certain page. She read the paragraph. Silence returned. Carol asked the woman why she had chosen that paragraph in context of her question. Mary explained her reason. A voice from across the table expanded on what Mary said taking us to another page. We were off on a marvelous conversation. Suddenly the two hours were over.

After her first question plus the one follow up, the leader did not have to ask another question. She had primed the pump with her initial question and those of us around the table ran with it.

Throughout the morning, I paid attention to the ways Mary marked her book and watched her skill in navigating the pages. She always found the right page that dealt with our issue.

There were silences throughout the two hours that no one felt compelled to fill. Amazing how quiet a room can be with fifteen people examining a question.

We used a technique to discuss a book called "shared inquiry" a process suggested by the President of the University of Chicago. In the mid thirties, he created the concept for Great Books. His vision, along with Mortimer Adler, became the foundation for the Great Books organization. The technique's usefulness has applications beyond book discussions in both personal and professional lives.

There is a description of Shared Inquiry on this site worth reading.

The people in my discussion group helped me understand how active listening is the engine for most of the discussion. That and good questioning.

It was not just the daily discussions that made me a believer in this new "book-camp" experience. The informal discussions with new friends at meals and walks by the lakes made The Republic come alive. Socrates seemed to be listening and walking with us as we talked.

But something remarkable happened after lunch. As our discussion ended, there was an announcement that there would be a short demonstration of the musical forms Plato says are appropriate for his Republic and what would be banned.

I had mixed feelings about attending. I had planned to ride my bike for a couple of hours that afternoon. But my curiosity got me. I chose to attend the program. John, the man who had played piano the night before, began his demonstration.

His approach was simple. He recited the words Plato used to describe each music form. Then he played a few bars that were the musical examples, aural definitions. With John speaking and his fingers playing it was easy to imagine we were in Athens in a crowd with Socrates himself though Socrates had no piano.

A few bars of a song describe music that words cannot. The more John talked and demonstrated the sounds behind the words, the more Plato's meanings became clear.

"Just listen —- don't think," John said, an unusual request in a Great Books discussion. He played several pieces, each different as to rhythm, tempo, and key. From his fingers came a Souza march I had played as a boy in a marching band each Memorial Day. He played the French revolutionary song, Le Marseillaise. After a pause, he again whispered, "keep your eyes closed."

He played the Liebestod, a lovely piece from Tristan and Isolde.

Though the piano and the room lacked the acoustics of a concert hall, the music captured the emotions evoked by each song.

As he ended, John again whispered "stay still, keep your eyes closed." We did. The silence only emphasized what we had just heard, what we had learned, what we were feeling.

Then he asked, "which music would Plato ban from his Republic and why?" That may have been the best leader's question of the week.

I drove home listening to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, one of several cassettes I bought at the Colby bookstore for my drive home. I have no doubt Swan Lake would have been banned in Plato's Republic.

As I headed south to home on the interstate, the wildflowers were more beautiful; the birches were more graceful than when I drove north the week before. And my bike, not touched for a week, was still secure on my roof.

>> Back to Top