Aristotle’s invitation to consider the people and events material to our lives

As I wrote in one of this blog’s first posts, since last September I have been enrolled in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, offered by the University of Chicago’s Graham School for Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. The Basic Program is an open enrollment, non-credit, four-year study of the Great Books of Western Civilization.

There are no exams, papers, or grades. Rather, the main activities are reading and discussion, via weekly classes smartly facilitated by Program instructors. Traditionally offered in face-to-face format at the school’s Chicago center, the Basic Program is now available online as well. (It has been delivered exclusively online during the pandemic.) The online format has made it possible for me to enroll from Boston.

Aristotle’s Poetics

Among the books assigned for our current, second-year autumn session is Aristotle’s Poetics, regarded as the first comprehensive work of literary criticism. Aristotle was an inveterate cataloguer and categorizer of knowledge and information. In this compact work (all of 35 pages, in the edition we’re reading), he identifies and discusses the core properties of literature and poetry, including tragedy, epic poetry, and comedy.

I find it fascinating to read how Aristotle sets out basic elements of storytelling that we now teach from grade school on up. At times he keeps it remarkably simple, telling us that a plot “is a whole if it has a beginning, a middle, and an end” (ch. 7). A little later,  he reminds us that “if the presence or absence of a thing makes no discernible difference, that thing is not part of the whole” (ch. 8). It’s basic stuff that we now may take for granted, but Aristotle helped to give us these elementary frameworks for understanding and creating dramatic work.

The stories of our lives

I also find that Poetics helps me to view my own stories more clearly. For example, the two passages quoted above may seem like statements of the obvious, rather than meaningful insights. After all, it doesn’t take a literary scholar to know that stories and plots — including our own — have a beginning, middle, and end. It also doesn’t take much to understand how people and things that pass through our lives with little impact aren’t core parts of our life stories.

But they serve as easy frames for identifying, sorting, and understanding the stories of our lives. What are those plots? What are their beginnings, middles, and ends? Who are the core players in them? Perhaps I’m especially appreciative because I’ve reached a point in my life where events and people in my life seem to be shaping into coherent chapters. On that note, a short passage from Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation (2004), by the late Joseph Campbell, is instructive:

In a wonderful essay called “On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual,” [philosopher Arthur] Schopenhauer points out that, once you have reached an advanced age, as I have, as you look back over your life, it can seem to have had a plot, as though composed by a novelist. Events that seemed entirely accidental or incidental turn out to have been central in the composition.

Making the Great Books your own: Growing in literary literacy or cherry-picking for relevant passages?

Let me confess that I may be guilty here of cherry-picking Poetics to suit my own purposes. Unlike some of Aristotle’s other works, this is not obviously applicable as a self-help volume. And yet I’m juxtaposing two short passages in a way that serves such a purpose for me.

In the Basic Program, our first objective is to understand and appreciate these works as literature. We are expected to read assigned chapters closely before class. During class, oftentimes we read passages aloud and discuss them at length. For many students in the Program, this is a golden opportunity to obtain a classical liberal arts education during the heart of adulthood, and/or to renew a connection with books encountered (and sometimes glossed over, to put it kindly, in my case) in our earlier schooling.

However, as one of our learned Chicago instructors has remarked on several occasions, the Great Books can also work as therapy. In fact, we now have a term — bibliotherapy — that captures how reading works of literature can help people to understand and cope with the ebbs and flows of their own lives. There’s even a book that provides specific reading suggestions, Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin, The Novel Cure, From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You (2013).

Personally, I am happy to combine both programmatic and personal learning benefits in reading these classic books. Unlike some of my more intellectual friends, I am not given to reading great novels and other literary works for their own sake. I need a connection, a point of relevance, to appreciate them more fully. So when a few lines from Aristotle speak to me, I get excited about that. I hope there will be many more such moments during the path of the Basic Program.

Embracing middlebrow culture: The Book-of-the-Month Club

1965 BOMC ad

Not long ago, if you were part of America’s growing middle class and wanted to expand your cultural literacy, the Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC) was a popular option towards doing so.

Founded in 1926, BOMC was the brainchild of New York ad agency guys who tapped into America’s embrace of mail order and the reading appetites of its upwardly mobile middle class. People typically became BOMC members by answering a magazine ad or a direct mail invitation. The Club’s marketing hook was an initial membership package that offered either a free premium volume or allowed you to select titles from the club’s catalog for a small initial sum. However, you also had to fulfill a membership agreement, which meant buying a specified number of books at club prices within the next two or three years.

Every month, members would receive a packet in the mail, containing a flyer describing the editors’ main selection for that month, a short catalog describing alternate and back list selections, and a reply card. If you did nothing, the main selection would be sent to you. You could also use the reply card to indicate that you didn’t want the main selection or to order alternate and back list selections.

Here’s a premium book once offered to new BOMC members, a 1954 illustrated profile of Europe. I can only imagine the different emotions evoked by this volume, published just nine years after the conclusion of the Second World War.

(photo: DY)

BOMC as a middlebrow cultural broker

BOMC offered a way to bring good books into your home with minimal hassle, screened by reviewers who had discerning eyes for the reading tastes of middlebrow America. Over the years, BOMC assembled various panels of judges to evaluate and select books for its catalog, some of whom were accomplished authors in their own right. During the Club’s heyday, serving as a BOMC selection committee judge carried some prestige within mainstream publishing circles.

Commercially speaking, BOMC was a big deal to authors seeking to broaden their readership. Main selection status signaled a stamp of approval by a trusted brand and a guarantee of higher sales. BOMC favored quality fiction and non-fiction for a general, intelligent audience, while largely avoiding books that might be considered too tawdry or cheesy. Its marketing campaigns played on such appeal and the idea of building a good home library, while usually managing to avoid lapsing into higher-level snobbery.

Among some stuffier types, however, this combination of commercial advertising and middle class reading tastes prompted derision of the whole enterprise (and by implication, perhaps, of its customers). Nevertheless, the Book-of-the-Month Club elevated America’s literary intelligence by bringing good books to an upwardly mobile swath of America’s population.

BOMC bestseller

If you’re looking for a sign of where BOMC’s cultural center of gravity rested during its heyday, consider that its bestselling book ever was journalist William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. First appearing in 1960, it was a publishing phenomenon, stunning industry experts who believed that Americans wanted to put anything to do with the war behind them. The Rise and Fall was a BOMC main selection and a favorite backlist choice for years to come.

 (photo: DY)

Big box and online booksellers

Predictably, the appearance of larger, brick and mortar bookstores and the emergence of online booksellers would spell trouble for the Book-of-the-Month Club. I was an off-and-on member from the 1980s through the early 2000s, and I witnessed its steadily declining commercial and cultural significance in shaping reading appetites.

After briefly shutting down in 2014, BOMC quietly reappeared the next year. Its owner, Bookspan, relaunched the Club as a fully online enterprise, using a streamlined subscription model. Its target readership is younger women who enjoy popular fiction.

When more is less special, and less is more special

I sometimes think about BOMC’s classic sales model as I try to manage my personal and professional book collections.

I’m generally careful in my personal spending, except for when it comes to buying books. On that note, I have little willpower. I can justify rationalize a book purchase on multiple grounds: (1) I want to read it now; (2) I want to read it later; (3) I might want to read it later; (4) It’s on sale; (5) It’s a used bookstore bargain find; (6) It’s useful for my work; (7) It’s a lovely edition of a favorite book; (8) Whatever. As a result, I have many more books than I could ever hope to read, even assuming a comfortable retirement someday and many healthy years to follow.

I’m grateful that I can afford to indulge my book-buying habit. I realize, however, that adding multiple books to my home and office libraries each month is not as special as the delicious anticipation of a new book, selected from a curated list. For example, I wonder how cool it was for a hungry reader to receive Marchette Chute’s Shakespeare of London (1949), including a neat little essay accompanying the volume.

(photo: DY)

Highly recommended

I won’t burden you with further observations about BOMC’s place in America’s 20th century cultural history. If you want to learn more about that story, with a big dollop of personal reading memoir mixed in, then I highly recommend Janice Radway’s A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle Class Desire (1997). Ignore the snarky reviews by those who, for some reason, can’t get over (1) a book that’s good with middlebrow culture; and (2) BOMC’s undeniable profit-making motive. This is an informative and entertaining read.

(photo: DY)


Note: Passages from this post were adapted from a 2016 entry to my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser.

On developing a global orientation

Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic, during a 2017 visit for a law and mental health conference (photo: DY)

In my more self-deluded moments, I like to think of myself as being something of a “global citizen.” After all, I do some international travel, engage in work that has some transnational relevance, donate to global charities, and gratefully have friends in and from many different countries. Hey, I even subscribe to the Guardian Weekly and The Economist!

In reality, though, I’m yet another professor whose travel experiences, work, and network of friends have international dimensions. I’m just as likely to check on the fortunes of my favorite sports teams as I am to click to news stories of key developments in other parts of the world.

By contrast, I know a good number of people whom I count as bonafide global citizens. Whether they travel around the world or not, they have a genuine international orientation that gives them a broader perspective on this planet we inhabit. Some, like friends and colleagues connected with the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network and the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, two wonderful organizations on whose boards I serve, devote significant energies toward furthering peace, justice, and humanitarian initiatives around the world.

How can we become more globally oriented citizens? This question has crossed my mind often and seems especially important right now, as we continue to grapple with a global pandemic and face a world increasingly impacted by climate change. Ironically, these developments threaten to turn us inward rather than outward, restricting international travel (a marvelous way of expanding our horizons) and causing us to protect our smaller circles rather than advancing the well-being of the broader global community.

For those of us who have leaned towards being more local or national in our outlook, it requires intentionality to view the world through a wider lens. This includes paying closer attention to news developments from around the world. It means bringing a more inclusive spirit to our lives, one that celebrates variety and diversity and naturally builds bonds with people from other cultures. And, when possible, travel can be part of the picture. In the words of Rick Steves, the popular travel author and educator:

Of course, travel, like the world, is a series of hills and valleys. Be fanatically positive and militantly optimistic. If something’s not to your liking, change your liking. Travel is addicting. It can make you a happier American, as well as a citizen of the world. Our Earth is home to over 7 billion equally important people. It’s humbling to travel and find that people don’t envy Americans.

. . . Globetrotting destroys ethnocentricity. It helps you understand and appreciate different cultures. Travel changes people. It broadens perspectives and teaches new ways to measure quality of life. Many travelers toss aside their hometown blinders. Their prized souvenirs are the strands of different cultures they decide to knit into their own character. The world is a cultural yarn shop.

And, at its most challenging levels, building a global outlook involves trying to understand and address the seemingly intractable differences that are causing so much strife and division today. For as President Kennedy said in his moving and compelling 1963 speech on the urgent need to curb the nuclear arms race:

And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.