Thursday, August 14, 2003

The Anti-Beach Book Crowd
Who said summer was a time for reading lite? Not the Chautauqua Literary and Science Circle, which has stuck with the heady stuff for 125 years.
By Margo Hammond
Book Editor, St. Petersburg Times

I just returned from the shores of Lake Chautauqua, a wooded area in western New York State, where the oldest continuous book club in America is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Founded by John Vincent, a bearded Methodist bishop who dressed in black cutaway suits, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) evolved as an extension of the good reverend's summer educational program for Sunday School ministers.

The concept for the book club was simple: Members (who paid annual dues of 50 cents) were sent four books a year to read within a four-year period. OK, so the books were often written and published by Vincent -- even a man of the cloth doesn't live by utopian dreams alone. But the list was not for the faint-hearted. It included challenging treatises on Greek and Roman history, studies of astronomy, and Bible history. No beach books for these folks! After four years, members would take a test to prove they had read all 16 books and then come to Chautauqua (if they could) to participate in a "recognition ceremony," passing through a golden gate to the Parthenon-like Hall of Philosophy while children tossed flowers at their feet.

Sure, it was corny and a tad bit pretentious. But remember, this was a time before public libraries, when people, especially in rural areas, had little access to books, and few women received advanced education. More than 8,000 people -- of all faiths -- signed up for the CLSC in those first years, and many wrote passionate letters to Vincent, thanking him for the chance to enter the ranks of the educated. One woman confessed to crying profusely when her books arrived in her postbox.

In 1882, 1,718 members "graduated," carrying a banner and calling themselves The Pioneers. In the ensuing years, hundreds came to Chautauqua each year to hear prominent speakers like Thomas Edison and Booker T. Washington. Meanwhile, readers across the country set up circles in places like Blue Earth, Minn., and Humbolt, Ohio, to discuss the books and perpetuate the Chautauqua principles of a sound mind, body and spirit.

Remarkably, the club still operates (it now costs $10 a year). The books on the club's list have gotten, well, more readable, but they are no less challenging. Among this year's suggested titles were Forrest Church's "The American Creed: A Spiritual and Patriotic Primer," Brian Hall's historic novel about Lewis and Clark, "I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company," and L.A. Times journalist Robin Wright's "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran." This week, Hillary Clinton is scheduled to speak there. All told, no fewer than 142,000 souls will show up this season to listen and learn on the grounds where the Chatauquans first set up their summer camp.

Which brings me to my question: Why does the media (and book editors in particular) always push the idea of "lite reading" at this time of year? People don't have to turn off their brains during the summer. Summer is not when we should stop learning, but rather the perfect opportunity to grapple with some of the more important issues of the day.

Excuse me while I go stretch out on the beach with a copy of "War and Peace."

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