The literary community in Utah County is diverse and vibrant–from open mics and reading series to poetry groups like Rock Canyon Poets as well as local chapters of the League of Utah Writers and the Utah State Poetry Society. I was excited to hear about the Provo Great Books Club from founder and UVU professor Carl Eric Scott, so I interviewed him to learn more.
HOPKINSON: How/why was the book club originally started?
SCOTT: My own graduate training had a foundation in the Great Books-only approach of St. John’s College. I went to the St. John’s Santa Fe campus for their Graduate Institute master’s degree, and then went on to get a PhD. in political science. While teaching a constitutional law class at UVU as an adjunct, I had a student, Samuel Corry, who had heard me talk about the Great Books approach. He wanted to try it out; I also met several BYU students at the time, through the political theorist Ralph Hancock, who had a similar interest. We took it from there, with a lot of leadership from Samuel.
HOPKINSON: Who can participate?
SCOTT: Anyone who can make it to our meetings, which take place in members’ homes. Typically, our membership has consisted of 1/3 UVU students, 1/3 BYU, 1/3 community members. Right now, we’re mostly community members connected to BYU, or students there. We’ve never had anyone younger than college-age participate, but we’re open in theory to high-school age folks. Our group has had success so far in conducting conversations in which non-religious persons, and persons from different religious backgrounds, dialogue well with one another when religion-related topics come up.
HOPKINSON: How do you select the books?
SCOTT: There are official lists of the Great Books, and we try to remain within these, usually trying to balance between literature, philosophy, political philosophy, and more rarely, history or theology. We try to pick books that complement one another, such as Virgil’s Aeneid, and the first books of Livy’s history. We’ve read lesser-known books by authors who belong to these lists, such as the latest Solzhenitsyn book to come into English translation, or a Ralph Ellison essay, or Dante’s little book of love poetry, La Vita Nuova. And we’ve read one contemporary philosopher, Chantal Delsol, who unfortunately will probably never meet the standard “canonical requirements” for Great Books status, due to her not being widely known. Those requirements are really hard to set for works from the last 150 years, but generally, the idea is that a Great Book is one that tends to win the contest of popularity over time, and that future ones keep talking about. It is a book that lends itself to being read multiple times in one’s life—it has a depth that makes returning to it worthwhile. It is a book that deals with a number of perennially-discussed ideas, and all of these ideas factor into the “meaning of life” question. You can learn more about the idea from the St. John’s College website, which also features a list of Great Books for the Eastern Classics program at Santa Fe.
I usually provide the group with two or three suggested thematic courses that will run for a third of a year, and then we vote. We try to balance the interests of different members–for example, knowing that a majority of members wanted to concentrate on philosophic works this fall, we made sure to read a couple of Jane Austen books in August, to keep our more literary members happy.
HOPKINSON: What’s the best part of being in a book club?
SCOTT: The best thing I’d say is living, at least in part, the literary and philosophic life, and all the benefits that come with that. Wisdom “is a thing,” and you get closer to it by reading and discussing these kinds of books. And you’re so much more likely to get through them if you know you will be discussing them with your fellow book-club members. But one big added benefit is that you get to know the folks in your group, and often in a deeper way than you would through other activities.
Carl Eric Scott has a PhD. in political science from Fordham University, and has taught political theory, American politics, and Great Books liberal arts, at a number of institutions, including Washington and Lee University, the University of Virginia, and St. John’s College, Santa Fe, before coming to teach at UVU. He has written on politics, constitutionalism, film, and rock music for the National Review Online blog “Postmodern Conservative.” He is the co-editor of Totalitarianism on Screen: The Art and Politics of ‘The Lives of Others’, published by The University of Kentucky Press, and the author of The Five Conceptions of American Liberty, an essay published by the journal National Affairs. His dissertation, The Inconstant Democratic Character, compared Plato’s and Tocqueville’s discussions of democratic society.
Trish Hopkinson is a poet, blogger, and advocate for the literary arts. You can find her online at SelfishPoet.com and provisionally in Utah, where she runs the regional poetry group Rock Canyon Poets and folds poems to fill Poemball machines for Provo Poetry. Her poetry has been published in several lit mags and journals, including Tinderbox, Glass Poetry Press, and The Penn Review; her third chapbook Footnote was published by Lithic Press in 2017.