Last night was the third time I participated in a Great Books book club. Our group was a bit bigger this time around with two new members and a third member who rejoined the group after missing out on Sophist and the Henriad. This evening we discussed Julius Caesar on the roof deck of The Porch, an Atlanta bar with a decent if not extraordinary beer selection and a waitress who managed to separate seven checks with rare ease.
Julius Caesar is a play I have read several times but never taught, and in truth I have not held it in the same esteem I hold some of Shakespeare’s other plays. Currently my junior English students and I are reading Hamlet, the play Shakespeare wrote immediately after Julius Caesar, and it remains endlessly engaging for me even though I have taught it more than ten times. Absent from Julius Caesar are the philosophical soliloquies, the integral female characters, any sustained sense of human loss that we find in Hamlet. We get instead a play with “manley” action as opposed to the twists and turns, delays and tension occasioned by what Claudius asserts is Hamlet’s “unmanly grief.”
I do not have unique insight into the play after our discussion though others at the table provided all sorts of context and insight I could never have accessed without them. I feel like I came to see the play more fully and that I pushed aside my previous tendency to dismiss it.
We talk often in schools about creating a community of learners. This can sound like fairly, and perhaps unnecessarily, esoteric language, but in fact it is exactly accurate for to describe the environment where I believe learning can best take place. The book club I have participated in now three times operates in small scale the way I would like a learning community to operate on a large scale.
Last night one member of the group had read a great deal regarding the history of Julius Caesar, as well as his assassination. Another member brought a wealth of knowledge of Shakespeare’s other plays and how this particular play fit into the scope and sweep of his work, while one more member brought a background in philosophy that added an additional layer to our conversation. Indeed each participant brought both knowledge of our shared reading, as well as personal experience and varied research to the table. It was intellectually engaging, demanding, and fun.
The dynamic of the book club scaled up to school size is an attractive way of seeing what we want in the best learning environments. Relationships based on shared interest and individual contribution create a recognition of an important truth—that is, we can learn more and learn better together.
Just in case we haven’t had enough blood in our recent reading…next up in the book club: Antony and Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus. I’ll let you know how it goes.
I have written about previous meetings of the book club before: