Taken from the Seattle Times October 9 2011
Fifty years ago, Mahlon and Jeanne Nichols founded a Great Books discussion group at the Seattle Public Library. It grew so big, it split and split again. Now there are groups also meeting in a retirement home and the University Village Barnes & Noble. Group size is limited to about 15, so groups sometimes will close to new members and another one will form, Nichols said. All are under the umbrella of the Pacific Northwest Great Books Foundation Council, which covers Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. There are about 30 groups in the region.
The heyday of Great Books clubs was in the late 1940s through 1950s. At that time, there was an emphasis on education and learning, TV had yet to become a household staple and most women worked at home. Today the number has declined from thousands to about 500 adult discussion groups nationwide, said Donald Whitfield, national director of the program. Part of the reason is there are many other options for continuing education and ways for spending time.
The foundation is nonprofit, and the groups are free. Junior groups for students of all ages also are offered.
“I was struggling as an engineering student when I first heard about Great Books,” Mahlon Nichols recalled.
There was a group forming at Boeing and he was invited to join by research scientist Dave Johnson, who later led Vashon’s group for 38 years before his death.
Nichols served on the Pacific Northwest council and organized an annual retreat where all the Great Books groups meet at Western Washington University, cozying up with French philosopher Michel Foucault or sometimes with lighter reading such as short-story writers Grace Paley or Raymond Carver for a weekend.
“It has become one of the greatest things in our lives,” Nichols said.