The untraveled world

This morning, as I sat down to breakfast, NPR aired a story on the discovery of ruins on the island of Ithaca, possibly the ancient home of the hero of Homer’s Odyssey.

It will be interesting if archaeologists have found Odysseus’ 3000-year-old home. But only interesting. For me, for millions, Odysseus remains the complex character of Homer’s epic, Kazantzakis’ sequel, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and Tennyson’s Ulysses.

Odysseus is the seeker, the adventurer, the man who defies the gods in quest of home, wife and son. He stands for all those who refuse to accept the bounds placed upon them by fear, superstition and the limited knowledge of the present. He seeks, in Tennyson’s words, “the untraveled world, whose margins fade forever and forever when I move.”

In the modern context, Odysseus represents those who pursue Truth, which must forever be just that – a pursuit. He is the antithesis of the prophet, the absolutist, the man of faith.

He is my personal hero.

In the spirit of Odysseus, as teacher and columnist, I have most often sought to challenge the comfortable assumption. We are a comfortable community, ever ready to slip into the quiet assurance that things will always be as they are, and that progress may be defined by the continuation of present trends.

If history teaches us anything, it is that change comes in unforeseen and unforeseeable ways. If there are true prophets among us, they are certainly Cassandras, speaking warnings which few believe. Anyone proclaimed and accepted as a prophet is probably dealing in old saws and moldy certitudes – and almost certainly wrong.

This attitude, perhaps, explains my affinity for book clubs. Five years ago, in this space, I proposed a book club for serious readers interested in learning more about the challenges of our times. The following January, the Commonwealth Book Club began meeting at the Chester library.

We started with a dozen members, men and women from three generations, representing a range of political views. Members came and went, but the club solidified around a dedicated core of six or seven who just kept coming. Today, as the club nears the end of its fifth year, there are 10 or so active members. A long-term leader has emerged in Chris Wiegard. After several moves, the club alternates between members’ homes and the beautiful Hopewell library. Its meeting time remains, with rare exceptions, 10 a.m. on the second Saturday of the month.

Last fall, I had to drop out of the book club for awhile, returning only this August, just in time for a discussion of the great American journalist, H. L. Mencken.

Mencken has long been a personal favorite. When I taught history at Midlothian High, I adorned the walls of my classroom with great quotations. Several were Mencken’s.

“It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull.”

“Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.”

“The public ... demands certainties; it must be told definitely and a bit raucously that this is true and that is false. But there are no certainties.”

Mencken and Odysseus would have gotten along famously.

Starting book clubs has become rather a habit with me. Later this month, I’ll be starting an entirely different sort of book club under the aegis of the Shepherd’s Center, the Bucket List Book Club.

Unlike most clubs, the Bucket List club will not select one book for everyone to read and discuss. Instead, it will function as a support group, along the lines of weight-loss clubs and twelve-step programs, for everyone who has some massive tome they have always intended to read and never gotten around to.

The choice of books is wide open: War and Peace, Gone With the Wind, the King James Version, Shogun, anything by Dickens, Dostoevsky, or Solzhenitsyn – even, to return to where we began, James Joyce’s Ulysses.

All that’s required is that you choose your “bucket list” book and show up at Chester Baptist on Wednesday, Sept. 22, at 8:30 a.m. We’ll go around the room, with each member declaring his or her choice of books and a target, in pages or chapters, for the next week.

At every subsequent meeting, we’ll applaud those who have met their targets, and encourage the rest.

Meetings should last about 15 minutes, so that everyone can make their 9 a.m. classes. I hope many readers will join us.

As for the Commonwealth Book Club, new members are always welcome, though those addicted to certainty should be warned. This is a club for seekers in the tradition of

Ulysses or skeptics in the tradition of Mencken.

Appropriately, the club’s next selection is Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.


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