October 2016 – I, Robot

On Wednesday, October 26, 2016 we will meet to discuss  I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. We will meet at 11:30 a.m. in room 2527.

I, Robot is a collection of short stories, all written between 1940 and 1950.  These stories were previously published in either Super Science Stories or Astounding Science Fiction. In 1950, Gnome Press compiled them into a single book, woven together with an interview with Dr. Susan Calvin, who tells these stories as individual historical events.

Asimov created the “three laws of robotics”:
1)    A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2)    A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3)    A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

He was an author and a professor of biochemistry at Boston University.  He was considered one of the “Big Three” of science fiction writers (Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clark were the other two).  In addition to science fiction, Asimov also wrote mysteries and fantasy as well as non-fiction subjects, including astronomy, math, history, chemistry and Shakespeare.

He was a long-time member and vice-president of Mensa International. He has won more than a dozen awards for particular works, half a dozen lifetime achievement awards and 14 honorary doctorate degrees.

An asteroid, a crater on Mars, a Brooklyn elementary school and a literary award are all named in his honor.

Happy Birthday Book Club!  8 years old.

On Wednesday, September 21, 2016 we will meet to discuss The Stranger by Albert Camus.  We will meet at 11:30 a.m. in room 2140.

From the Elk Grove Library:

“A young Algerian, Meursault, afflicted with a sort of aimless inertia, becomes embroiled in the petty intrigues of a local pimp and, somewhat inexplicably, ends up killing a man. Once he’s imprisoned and eventually brought to trial, his crime, it becomes apparent, is not so much the arguably defensible murder he has committed as it is his deficient character. In the story of an ordinary man who unwittingly gets drawn into a senseless murder on a sun-drenched Algerian beach, Camus was exploring what he termed “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.”


Conformity, Poverty, Honesty, Death — Psychological aspects, Murder, Murderers,
Trials (Murder) , Executions and executioners, and Existentialism

Existentialism  is “a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.”


From Wiki – The notion of the Absurd “…contains the idea that there is no meaning in the world beyond what meaning we give it. This meaninglessness also encompasses the amorality or “unfairness” of the world. This contrasts with the notion that “bad things don’t happen to good people”; to the world, metaphorically speaking, there is no such thing as a good person or a bad person; what happens happens, and it may just as well happen to a “good” person as to a “bad” person.

Because of the world’s absurdity, at any point in time, anything can happen to anyone, and a tragic event could plummet someone into direct confrontation with the Absurd. The notion of the Absurd has been prominent in literature throughout history. Many of the literary works of Søren Kierkegaard, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Eugène Ionesco, Miguel de Unamuno, Luigi Pirandello, Jean-Paul Sartre, Joseph Heller and Albert Camus contain descriptions of people who encounter the absurdity of the world.”

On Wednesday, August 24, 2016 we will meet to discuss Plainsong by Kent Haruf.  We will meet at 11:30 a.m. in a picnic setting in the courtyard.  If there is no room for us or the weather is inclement, we will meet in room 2549.

From GoodReads –

A heartstrong story of family and romance, tribulation and tenacity, set on the High Plains east of Denver.

In the small town of Holt, Colorado, a high school teacher is confronted with raising his two boys alone after their mother retreats first to the bedroom, then altogether. A teenage girl—her father long since disappeared, her mother unwilling to have her in the house—is pregnant, alone herself, with nowhere to go. And out in the country, two brothers, elderly bachelors, work the family homestead, the only world they’ve ever known.

From these unsettled lives emerges a vision of life, and of the town and landscape that bind them together—their fates somehow overcoming the powerful circumstances of place and station, their confusion, curiosity, dignity and humor intact and resonant. As the milieu widens to embrace fully four generations, Kent Haruf displays an emotional and aesthetic authority to rival the past masters of a classic American tradition.

Utterly true to the rhythms and patterns of life, Plainsong is a novel to care about, believe in, and learn from.

July 2016 – 1776

On Wednesday, July 27, 2016 we will meet to discuss 1776 by David McCullough.  We will meet at 11:30 a.m. in room 2137.

Some excerpts from two David McCullough interviews give a small insight to how he undertook such a large project and make it an enjoyable read.

I want people to see that all-important time in a different way – in the way it was. For a number of reasons, including the absence of photographs, we tend to see the men and women of the Revolution as not quite real. And we have far too little sense of what they suffered. Unlike the people you see in Mathew Brady’s photographs from the Civil War, the men and women of the Revolution seem more like characters in a costume pageant. And it’s a pageant in which the performers are all handsome as stage actors, with uniforms and dress that are always costume perfect. I want to be inside that other time. I want to convey the atmosphere of the time, what it was like to have been alive then, what the reality was for those people. I often think about how they would feel if they could read what I’m writing. I imagine them asking, ‘Does he get it?’
McCullough’s process has taken him through some of the most pivotal moments in America’s history. In his most recent book, 1776, McCullough was able to sift through material that was being held in more than twenty-five libraries, some in America and others in the United Kingdom.  He “drew on letters, diaries, memoirs, maps, orderly books, newspaper accounts – all the usual primary sources historians work with.”   McCullough also relies on academic historians for information as well. In the case of 1776, McCullough used three that were published in the late 1700’s, shortly after the events occurred.

Book Reporter, “Author Talk: David McCullough” BookReporter.com http://www.bookreporter.com/authors/au-mccullough-david.asp

I try to do the research, up to maybe the point where I think 60-some percent of it is done,
and then I begin writing. And it’s in the writing that you begin to find out what you need to know, and what you don’t know, and it’s perhaps circumstantial, but I don’t think so. I try to write four good pages a day. That’s double space, typewritten pages. I still work on a typewriter, a manual typewriter because I love the feeling of making something with my hands.

Academy of Achievement, “David McCullough” Academy of Achievement http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/mcc2int-1

Please see the post on our blog from May, 11, 2010


Walter Benjamin — ‘History is written by the victors.’


On Wednesday, June 22, 2016 we will meet to discuss Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.  We will meet at 11:30 a.m. in room 2137.

From barnesandnoble.com:

Since it was first performed in 1949, Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about the tragic shortcomings of an American dreamer has been recognized as a milestone of the theater.  Willy Loman, the protagonist of Death of a Salesman, has spent his life following the American way, living out his belief in salesmanship as a way to reinvent himself.  But somehow the riches and respect he covets have eluded him.  At age 63, he searches for the moment his life took a wrong turn, the moment of betrayal that undermined his relationship with his wife and destroyed his relationship with Biff, the son in whom he invested his faith.  Willy lives in a fragile world of elaborate excuses and daydreams, conflating past and present in a desperate attempt to make sense of himself and of a world that once promised so much.

Please join us on Wednesday May 25, 2016 when we discuss The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.   We will meet at 11:30 a.m.  in room 2137.


Reception of the novel. With its publication in 1931, The Good Earth turned into a literary phenomenon.  The novel instantly became one of the most famous bestsellers in the history of American fiction, and it achieved wide popularity abroad.  It was translated into thirty different languages; there were at least seven different Chinese translations alone.  In addition to its public popularity, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Buck as well as the Howells Medal for Distinguished Fiction and became a major factor in her being the first woman awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1938).

The reviews in China varied.  Filled with admiration, some Chinese congratulated the American author for writing such a realistic story.  Others, from the intellectual Chinese community, hated the book “because they didn’t want foreigners to learn anything unpleasant about China … because some of them were dependent on foreigners … under their protection or pay (Stirling p. 109).  Similarly, the Chinese in the United States, feeling that the novel dishonored their homeland, showed strong disapproval of it at first.  This did not, however, deter the author.  Deciding that she had done nothing more heinous than tell the truth as she saw it, Buck went on to write two more volumes – Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935) – about the history of Wang Lung’s children.  Together with The Good Earth they would comprise the trilogy House of Earth.

Source: Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them.  Joyce Moss and George Wilson. Vol. 3: Growth of Empires to the Great Depression (1890-1930s).

On Wednesday, April 27, 2016 we will meet to discuss this year’s choice for the Great Books Intercollegiate Student Symposium*, The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy.  We will meet at 11:30 a.m. in room 1550.

From Amazon.com:

“Hailed as one of the world’s supreme masterpieces on the subject of death and dying, The Death of Ivan Ilych is the story of a worldly careerist, a high court judge who has never given the inevitability of his death so much as a passing thought. But one day death announces itself to him, and to his shocked surprise he is brought face to face with his own mortality. How, Tolstoy asks, does an unreflective man confront his one and only moment of truth?
This short novel was the artistic culmination of a profound spiritual crisis in Tolstoy’s life, a nine-year period following the publication of Anna Karenina during which he wrote not a word of fiction. A thoroughly absorbing and, at times, terrifying glimpse into the abyss of death, it is also a strong testament to the possibility of finding spiritual salvation. “

*The Great Books Symposium will be held at Wright College this year on Tuesday, May 3rd  12:30-1:50 in the Events Theatre.  Best of luck to to all the students involved.

Character List

  • Ivan Ilych Golovin  –  The protagonist of the novel. Ivan is a nondescript, unexceptional man
  • Peter Ivanovich –  Ivan’s closest friend and fellow judge.
  • Praskovya Fedorovna Golovina  –  Ivan’s wife and the mother of his children.
  • Schwartz –  Ivan’s colleague and friend.
  • Gerasim –  Ivan’s sick nurse and the butler’s assistant.
  • Vladimir Ivanich  –  Ivan’s son.
  • Lisa –  Ivan’s daughter.
  • Fedor Petrovich  –  Lisa’s fiancé.