Harrison Middleton University

Book Groups from Home

Book Groups from Home

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


April 3, 2020

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Most of us had plans that have been interrupted by COVID-19. Medical complications aside, healthy humans still have to deal with time in isolating atmospheres, which can be very difficult. In fact, humans are so social that they will sometimes avoid those restrictions, even when advised. We at Harrison Middleton University have some ideas about how to help keep boredom and isolation at bay.

First of all, if you have not yet tried Zoom or Facetime or Skype, now is a great time. The platforms allow for face-to-face discussion, and sometimes, frankly, it’s just nice to see a friendly face. Of course, for those with technical issues, the phone will do. At HMU, we run most of our projects over the phone. We have wonderful attendance and interesting conversations. In fact, a stimulating conversation of 1.5 hours will carry you far past the conversation itself. I often find myself thinking about random topics days after the discussion has ended. I spend the next day or two rolling over points made during these conversations. In these intellectual conversations, everyone has a chance to speak, and even when I initially disagree with a point, I do spend time weighing it. I like to think of it as an experiment in civil discourse, but really, it’s a time to stretch my imagination towards someone else’s. Honestly, what could be more thrilling than that?

Second, anyone, anywhere can participate. Here’s an example. For the past eight months, Gary Schoepfel, one of the HMU faculty members, along with a group of cohorts from all over North America had been preparing to attend a performance of Wagner’s The Ring series in Chicago. It consists of four operas, and 17 hours of music and drama, spread over four days. Obviously, recent closures affected their travel and the performances were all canceled. Initially saddened by the cancellation, they quickly picked up phones and used a conference call line to stay connected. They now call themselves the Das Ring-Volk and have pieced together a pretty impressive study guide.

As Gary Schoepfel explains, the group is rigorous, but entertaining. He writes:

Readings: We have been reading and discussing the libretti of the four operas: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Gotterdämmerung. (These are listed in their order of performance.) In addition, we have read M.Owen Lee’s Turning the Sky Around, Roger Scruton’s The Ring of Truth, and Rober Donington’s Wagner’s Ring and Its Symbols.

Other materials: We are watching the Robert Lepage Metropolitan Opera productions of all four operas. We have been sharing YouTube videos that demonstrate and explain how some of Wagner’s rich and complex music works together with the libretti that tell The Ring’s complex story based on a variety of sources including Eddas and the Norse Sagas.

Format: Each Sunday morning, we discuss one scene or act of an opera for one hour. Each participant is asked to write two questions about the meaning of the opera, either the music or the drama. These questions are what prompt the discussions.

Why are we doing this: The Ring has been a wonder and delight for millions all around the world since its opening in Germany at the Bayreuth Festival in 1876. It’s a monumental fusion of drama and operatic music telling an epic story of gods, heroes, dwarfs, dragons, deceit, death, love and the end of the world. Wagner made no small plans. The first scene is set underwater in the Rhine River. The operas require an orchestra so big that an opera house had to be built to mount the productions. The music demands sounds that required new instruments to be created. And the four operas run nearly seventeen hours over four days.

In other words, the group has their work cut out for them. But they also demonstrate how their plans, though greatly altered, were not ruined. Rather, they kept the group going with conference calls. It is one example among many about how people can stay connected in difficult times. In fact, since humans crave social situations, staying connected through intellectual dialogue is imperative for most of us.

At Harrison Middleton University, many of our discussions run over the phone. While the Das Ring-Volk group is private, we have many discussions which are open to the public. In April, we have discussions on Virgil and Wendell Berry and all readings will be provided. Contact as****@hm*.edu for more information. If you are not able to join us, we invite you to look into local groups run by libraries, or local Great Books organizations. You can also try Classical Pursuits and the Great Books Foundation. With technology, staying connected is easy. We invite you to try a distance program and see how you like the conversation!

We look forward to hearing from you! Until then – be safe, be healthy, be in conversation.

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