TORONTO PURSUITS – Your chance to weigh in

I have never been known for my prudent and methodical long-range planning. Most of you who know me probably plunk me right in the middle of the “Free Spirit” camp. And yet…

I have had to learn to sometimes set spontaniety and seredipity aside when it comes to Classical Pursuits.

And now is such a time. And I invite your help.

I need to select the ten seminar options for next summer’s Toronto Pursuits program. I would like to offer sessions that you desire. But I cannot wait until you are here in several weeks.

So, I invite you to offer your suggestions at the bottom of this page. I will prime the pump by itentifying some of the ideas proposed by prosective leaders. Feel free to comment on those and/or make other suggestions. Only a couple things to remember…We offer music, art and film as well as literature and sometimes a mix of these in teh same seminar. Most importantly, the work(s) need to be discussable. By that I mean that they bear multiple interpretations. This criterion excludes many very good books.

Just leave your comments at the bottom of this page. Many thanks in advance.

Battle of the Sexes. A mix of works from throughout literary history. Lysistrata, Shakespeare (Taming of the Shrew), Chaucer (Wife of Bath’s tale, particularly). We’d do a movie or two, e.g.,  A Lion in Winter. Adam’s Rib with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, His Girl Friday with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. Big book, old book, nonfiction.  Herodotus went over pretty well, as I recall.
Aristotle’s Ethics. Old book, difficult book, foundational text in western philosophy and ethics. It’s a book about happiness.

Thomas Mann. He wrote lots of big books. His Joseph and his Brothers tetralogy is  great, but probably too long. Magic Mountain is always there.

Something by Nabokov, Lolita, The Gift…

A selection of short works by James Joyce

Plutarch. Any bunch of the lives, maybe in combination with other works that have used him as a source, notably Shakespeare.

How are Greek and Roman mythology selling these days? I’ve been reading some Joseph Campbell lately, and I can see doing something with him, some Ovid, part of a very intriguing book I’ve just discussed The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso, Plutarch, Hesiod, a tragedy or two.

The “Holy Trible” – Coordinated Readings from the Hebrew Bible, New Testament and Qur’an

High School Redux: revisit the books that are read in high school, and see how they hold up. Catcher in the Rye, All Quiet on the Western Front, Animal Farm, Brave New World, 1984, Lord of the Flies, etc. Not all, of course.
Conrad, Faulkner, and Hemingway. It could be neat to explore the heroic in three novels and some short stories.

Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Either the entire novel (probably nuts) or several of the pieces.

Science Fiction. We could pick 3-5 of the most notable sf. There are several sci fi types in your audience; Paul Keeton is one.

Canterbury Tales

Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett

The Role of the Artist under Soviet Dictatorship: Mikhail Bulgakov. We would read Master and Margarita closely and delve into themes of art, resistance, oppression and what it means to be human.

Infinite Jest – a very long novel by David Foster Wallace published in the 1990’s.

Stoic Joy. Self-help from three Roman philosophers: Epictetus (The Manual), Marcus Aurelius (The Meditations), and selected essays and letters by Seneca.

Seeking the Divine: James, The Varieties of Religious Belief; Eliade, The Sacred and Profane; Freud, The Future of an Illusion.

Poetry – W. B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney

The letters and art of Vincent Van Gogh

Symphonies of Sibelius

The Concerto – Studies in Contrast

Charles Dickens’s’ David Copperfield

Literature into film, e.g., Age of Innocence, Brideshead Revisited, The Great Gatsby, Portrait of a Lady, Wings of the Dove

The idea of artist as tortured soul

Again, a plea for your own wish list. We are here to please and need your input. Many thanks.


  1. Dear Ann,

    Thanks for giving us the opportunity for our input! Very much appreciated!
    In addition to the list you’ve provided, I would suggest the theme of ‘psychopathology in literature.’
    I would have voted for several of the other themes you’ve suggested. However, they bring up an issue that I’ve observed several times: namely that the majority of the artists highlighted are male. (same old, same old) PLEASE give us more diversity in authorship within a theme.
    Thanks again!

  2. Bloomsbury Influence with visits to Charleston and Monk’s Head. Read To the Lighthouse, journals of Frances Partridge, Virginia Woolf. Explore art by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Carrington.

  3. Donald Lubick

    Essays of Montaigne
    Ethics of Spinoza

  4. Robin Roger

    This list holds many interesting possibilities, I particularly like the James/Eliade/Freud combo. My preference is always to chose works I would find difficult to read on my own, or which are so rich they just have to be discussed with others. For that reason I would really like to see a selection from Michel de Montaigne, whose essays are considered to have launched the reflective trend in literature that influenced everyone from Rousseau to Emerson to writers today. It might be possible to combine essays by Montaigne with short pieces by some of the writers he influenced.

  5. Eric Timmreck

    Ann, Here are a couple of ideas —

    Apollo vs Dionysus — the age old conflict between mind and body, intellect and emotion, elegance vs crassness, rising above the earth vs being pulled back down towards it. Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy is one key text, but there are many more. I can work up expanded thoughts on this if you think that it would be of interest.

    James Joyce — Further to the ‘Joyce’ suggestion already on your list, perhaps begin to build enthusiasm (and a clientele of afficionados) toward a multi-year series on Joyce, to be continued forward if the first steps are successful. Perhaps start with Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist. I would love to then move on (in 2013) to Ulysses, which would take at least two summer sessions to do justice to it (a local group just concluded a multi-month reading, but I was not able to participate.) Then (fanfare here) on to Finnegan’s Wake, which I am thoroughly enjoying with a local group, mostly reading parts of it out loud and occasionally breaking into uproarious laughter. Finnegan’s Wake may require at least several summer sessions — to be continued of course only if interest stays strong enough. But as an indicator let me say that at last month’s session we had a dozen people around a table in a Barnes&Noble reading Wake aloud and regularly cracking up!

    The notion of a continuing theme has been very successful in a number of our Houston Great Books groups.

    Thanks for asking for our ideas, -Eric

  6. Carol Timmreck

    Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged, Fountainhead

  7. ann sofia

    The Yeats/ Heaney poetry looks good
    I also like the Sibelius and the Concerto musuc choices
    I wish the India literature was being offered again
    Plurtarch and also the Pelopolisian War also interst me
    See you in another week

  8. cindy van

    now that you are on my radar i hope to attend next year. i have always loved the russians and the irish and read much of both in my 20’s but would love to reread in my mid 50’s. i did that with many of the classics as my kids read them in high school and i found the perspective changes and i tried to read them more slowly and thoughtfully.
    i have just discovered joseph campbell and religion and philsophy always interest me. i have always meant to read proust, voltaire, cervantes (have you ever read graham greene’s ‘monsignor quixote’? i am rereading it when i should be reading the original! i am sure that is a consideration for the camino…..)

    currently i am reading egyptian and balkan based books or authors from those areas: al aswany and ungresic. would that interest anyone?
    waiting to be read are autobiographies by nabokov and one “vera” about his wife. never did get to bulgakov. chekhov would be great or is that this year’s?
    yeats, beckett and joyce would be wonderful.
    i love history. what about john keay’s and the empires of the east?

  9. Craig Walley

    Thanks for giving us this opportunity. How about some plays. My book group enjoyed discussing Conor McPherson’s “The Weir” and “The Seafarer.” These are both, in a way, ghost stories, and maybe we could add some more in this genre. Musically, how about a week on the fugue? Finally, in classical writers, Cicero would be interesting to study.

  10. Jean Wyrick

    Yes to books into films and, as suggested, more women writers (Kate Chopin and New Orleans?). I want to attend and just haven’t been able to yet! Thanks for the invitation to comment….

  11. Fay Goldstep

    A meaty Russian novel would be great. I missed the Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky that was offered in previous years. Myth, religion and philosophy are a trifecta for me. Bring on Joseph Campbell, I have not had enough exposure to him. Also, the James, Eliade and Freud looks intriguing. Why not Ayn Rand. She has been shunned too long in liberal arts circles!
    I might be tempted to do Proust. Talk about meaty…
    Thanks for the opportunity to weigh in.

  12. Fay Goldstep

    By the way, gender should not have any impact on the topics. Please do away with any affirmative action!! If a topic or artist cannot win on their own merit, they should not be included.

  13. Thanks for soliciting suggestions.
    Of those proposed, I like Fiction into Film, Nabokov, and The Concerto.
    Other suggestions: World War I in Literature, Latin American Literature

  14. wow, so many choices and all so great. Thanks for asking!

    I’d be very interested in The “Holy Trible” – Coordinated Readings from the Hebrew Bible, New Testament and Qur’an.

    Ayn Rand for sure — somebody so controversial needs further examination

    Joseph Campbell — I’ve been meaning to delve deeper into mythology, this could be the day (or week…!).

    Both of Eric Timmreck’s choices are great!

    Hemingway, Faulkner and Conrad. 3 of my faves.. I’d love the opportunity to share and mostly to hear other interpretations.

    If you’re looking for travel pursuits ideas, have you considered Caribbean or Latin American writers? Just starting to look into the Caribbean, and I’ve always loved Latin American writers, plus south in February is heaven to a Canadian!

    Looking forward to this year’s Toronto Pursuits, my first! See you soon, Ann.

  15. Jean Bubba

    I was hoping to see a session on the Fairy Tale tradition in the UK – a marriage of literature and art in a session that deals with how story comes out of landscape.

    Also, in a similar vein, I would love to attend a session that explores the Arts & Crafts Movement (Morris and Rennie MacIntosh)in the UK and in the US with Frank Lloyd Wright. We could do a trip to the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo and to Wychwood Park.

    And then there are the ancient stories: Inanna and Gilgamesh. How I would love to go deep sea diving with these!

  16. Jean Bubba

    And one more – KING ARTHUR! How wonderful to explore Arthurian literature and film in good company!

  17. Lillian Dabney

    Ayn Rand for sure!
    I think Moby Dick is a book worthy of discussion.
    Anything by James Joyce (I especially like Eric’s suggestion)
    What about plays of August Wilson? We could tackle the entire Pittsburgh chronicle. It would be awesome!!!!!!

  18. Up until I’ve not been able to participate in these forums for financial reasons, but I look forward to being able to in 2012. My preferences include myth, religion and philosophy. Egyptian and Balkan literature, and Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars.

    I would also be interested in music, but have little musical knowledge – should that exclude these studies for me?
    I’m also interested in literature into film, and agree with the comment given and say no to affirmative action.

  19. Ann Wheeler


    Several years ago, I attended the seminar on the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and I’d love some kind of follow-up. Of course, it would be tricky to design a seminar that could be both a follow-up and an introduction of the many people out there who didn’t attend the first one.

    Something on science fiction would be great. Ursula LeGuin’s work is wonderfully discussable, and could be easily combined with other writers. It might be interesting to choose a selection of books from different time periods to consider how science fiction reflects the time in which it is written–maybe even starting with Frankenstein, moving on to HG Wells, then something by Heinlein and LeGuin, maybe even some Octavia Butler if time allows. I don’t know if that would be too much reading for a one week seminar. And of course, film could be included as well.

    I’d also be interested in seminars on Beckett or Bulgakov.

    Including more women or writers of color is not necessarily “affirmative action.” The topics that come to mind first may simply concern the most well-known authors, while more thinking–more thinking is always good!–may bring others (less obvious but still worthy) to mind. What about a seminar on George Eliot’s Middlemarch, or a seminar comparing novels by the Bronte sisters? a seminar comparing Walcott’s long poem Omeros to Homer’s epics? (Omeros is a wonderfully rich and beautiful poem). a seminar on autobiography, perhaps including writers such as Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Henry Adams, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, Maya Angelou, Wole Soyinka (his Ake is wonderful and too little read)twr, Annie Dillard…. I could go on, but that’s already way too much for one week.

    I also like the suggestions above about Arthurian literature, World War I in Literature (Pat Barker’s trilogy could sustain a week on its own)

    Thanks for asking–even if none of these topics make it, I’ve enjoyed thinking about them.


  20. Keith McDuffie

    A couple of people mention Latin American literature. A vast subject, but perhaps limit it to one or two countries, say Mexico,Peru,Brazil or Argentina. In the case of Argentina, perhaps choose from Bioy Casares, Borges, Cortázar, Güiraldes, Puig, Sábato, Luisa Valenzuela (and the tango could be an important topic as well). Mexico: Rosario Castellanos, Juan Rulfo, Elena Poniatowska. Peru: José María Arguedas, César Vallejo, Mario Vargas Llosa. Brazil: Clarice Lispector, Joãn Gimarães Rosa, Rachel de Quiroz, Graciliano Ramos. All of these people wrote short stories, which might be the most manageable approach to them. Movies might be included: Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Death of Artemio Cruz, Blowup, etc. For that matter, the Latin American short story would be an interesting theme in itself. So would the Latin American essay. Another possible theme is the American short story–so many good writers to choose from. American serious music: Gershwin, Glass, Barber, Carter, etc. One could even do a seminar on American operas: Gershwin, Marc Blitstein, Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, Scott Joplin, Douglas Moore. One might even stretch the case a bit and include L. Bernstein (Candide?), Stravinsky (The Rake’s Progress) and Kurt Weill (a lot of Broadway shows and The Three Penny Opera–perhaps American culture as reflected in changing fashions in the American musical might also be of interest). Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to the discussion Benjamin Britten’s sources for his operas in little more than a week!A3B9

  21. Frank Ackers

    Several ideas for next time:

    1. Cobble together the best of the best in science fiction / fantasy. Names that come to mide are: Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin.

    2. Bring back the Russian classics for a return trip: War and Peace, The Idiot, etc. Existentialist musings are always food for thought…

    3. Do something distinctly philosophical: Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the longer works of Kafka, such as The Trial. Maybe even a package related to the philosophy of religion – from a balanced view.

    4. Percpectives on Religion. One approach would be existentialism: Combine Kierkegaard’s material, such as The Sickness Unto Death, or Attack Upon Christendom with Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor, dealing with the burden of free will (or even with Crime and Punishment with its preoccupation with the processes of redemption).

    Another approach to religion might compare ideas from both psychology and science of mind. For example, combine William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience with Schopenhaur’s thoughts on the will to power.

    Or, just stick with several books by Soren Kierkegaard-always a good read.

  22. Lillian Dabney

    And speaking of science fiction/fantasy, I think Perdido Street Station by the genre bending, mind blowing China Mieville would be an excellent discussion.

  23. Ever since I heard an interview with Sarah Bakewell about her new book How To Live, a life of Montaigne, I have wanted to read his essays. Even though he lived in the 16th C, his essays apparently are surprisingly modern and relevant to our times. This would be my choice for a CP seminar week.

  24. Ann for Wendy McDonald

    Hi, Ann –
    Unfortunately I was not able to send my comments via the link. So here there are – hope they are not too late.

    I like many of the suggestions: works by Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Proust, symphonies of Sibelius, Concertos, Role of the Arts under Soviet Dictatorship (though don’t think I’d like The Master and Margarita).
    Glad to see Dickens on the list since the 200th anniversary of is birth will be celebrated in 2012.

    My top choices at this point are:
    Sarah Bakewell’s new book, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne (thanks to Jo-Ann and another responder’s comments).
    and World War I literature. Having seen the fine 1997 film, Regeneration, based on Pat Barker’s book, I would be interested in reading her highly acclaimed trilogy. (As someone else said, this could take up the week.) Perhaps others? e.g. some of the poetry (Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfrid Owen)? Selections from Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth? Joseph Boyden’s novel, Three Day Road, would be fascinating, but perhaps not quite fit the focus?

    Thank you Ann, and see you soon. Best of luck coming up with a program for next summer.


  25. Ann for Chuch Scarcliff

    I’m pretty sure that this isn’t the format you had in mind when you asked for book and discussion suggested but I’m pretty long winded so here goes. As to what qualifies me to write on this subject, here’s my résumé: For almost as long as I can remember I’ve been involved in selecting readings for the San Francisco Council’s Asilomar, Poetry Weekend or Long Novel Weekend events. I believe our organization and yours both want the same things from the books we select. We want readings that stimulate good discussions but we can’t survive without books that attract people and make them want to pay their money and sign up for our events.
    My first cliché is that we’ve never gone wrong with Shakespeare and I don’t think we ever will. That doesn’t mean that we should read Shakespeare every year, but only that we usually do well those years when the Bard is on our list.
    My next one is that we do better with short readings than we do with long ones. Of course that rule doesn’t apply to our Long Novel Weekend and with five days and five discussions your Toronto week can handle long readings.
    Next, as much as I’d like to include writings from the great philosophers (Aristotle, Kant, Descartes, Kierkegaard, etc.) they won’t attract a crowd for us and they don’t do well in our discussions. That wasn’t so when I began attending Asilomar 40 years ago but nowadays I’m afraid that out here on the left coast we’re more in tune what the Kardashians are doing and revelations about Arnold Swarzeneger’s love life.
    We also have surprises ― good and bad ― and we should expect them. Several years ago we tackled Joyce’s Ulysses at our Long Novel Weekend. It attracted a good crowd but didn’t work in discussion (My feeling is that this is one of the few books that needs to be taught rather than (or before) being discussed.) On the other hand, when I was in charge of that event I gambled on The Ambassadors by Henry James and it worked out very well. Yet, I have no idea why The Ambassadors was successful for us and why Ulysses wasn’t. I know that a few years ago The Magic Mountain didn’t generate much interest for your Toronto event. How could that be? I don’t have a clue.
    Sometimes when I’ve worked on book or poem selection ideas from others have helped me a great deal; more often they haven’t. Our folks occasionally fall in love with the book they just read and think discussing in Great Books would be wonderful. Maybe so, maybe not. I take those suggestions with a grain of salt. The moral to that story is that you should also take my specific suggestions with a grain of Canadian salt.
    1) Since I believe you’ve done The Odyssey recently, how about The Iliad? I know the complaints ― too much violence, too many long and boring passages. Yet, I am one of the few readers who prefer it (I consider The Iliad to be the greatest work of literature I’ve read.). As I see it, The Iliad is built less on the heroics of one character and more upon the understandable and sometimes poignant personal relationships between believable characters who have flaws.
    2) Unless it’s one you’ve done in past years Goethe’s Faust might be a good choice ― both parts. People I know are familiar with Part One but not necessarily with Part Two.
    3) Here’s my off-the-wall suggestion. This year you have a session with related readings from the Vietnam War. How about one with relate readings on the theme of “wayward wives.” I’d start with Madame Bovary and possibly add Lady Chatterley’s Lover (a novel that I don’t like at all) and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (a good novel that I like a lot). There are other novels that could be nominated (and I expect there’s a better term to be used than wayward wives, but you get the idea).
    4) I like Faulkner and here are two possibilities that might work: 1) The Snopes Trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, The Mansion), or 2) The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom. The Snopes Trilogy is the most accessible for readers while the other two are far more difficult but more rewarding.
    5) One of the online responses suggested Joyce’s short fiction. I like that idea. While just to talk about “The Dead” is worth the price of an airplane ticket to Toronto, all of the stories in The Dubliners could be discussed in a week. In fact, you might even be able to fit in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
    6) Finally, plays always work well for us here and it doesn’t seem to matter if it’s Greek tragedy, Shakespeare or modern. My thought would be to discuss 3 or 4 plays by a modern playwright. There are plenty to choose from but Eugene O’Neill and August Wilson are at the top of my list.

    Chuck Scarcliff

  26. Madeline Grant

    I was happy to see that you’re thinking of including a couple of more modern (and lighter!) topics in your list for next year — i.e. High School Redux and Literature into Film. I have a few more to suggest:
    Music: Gershwin or Ellington (there are biographies and critiques)
    Philosophy: Existentialism (Sartre wrote a lot)
    Poetry: The Romantics: Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Byron, etc.
    Drama: Harold Pinter
    Short Stories: Alice Munro; Mavis Gallant
    Literature: Salman Rushdie (his ‘Midnight’s Children is superb)
    WWI literature is a great idea; I can recommend ‘Goodbye to all That’ by Robert Graves.

    Cheers, Madeline

  27. Ann: Under “Literature into Film”- John Fowles wrote extensively in his journals about his experience working with William Wyler and Hollywood on the screenplay for “The Collector”. And any of Fowles’ books, including his journals, could be read under “Battle of the Sexes”. Thomas Hardy is an author I feel transferred well to the screen, perhaps because he was an architect. He might also be under “High School Redux” although regretfully that was not my experience. Another under “Literature into Film” might be Malcolm Lowry’s”Under the Volcano”. Gordon Z.

  28. How about Henry V…Shakespeare’s look at the perfect monarch…philospher king…or was he? It opens mid season at Stratford.

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