By Mike McInerney The Heights Great Books Discussion Group was started in the fall of 1983 by Kathleen Lipscomb and Mike McInerney, both of whom are graduates of Great Books programs. Lipscomb attended St. John’s University in Santa Fe, New Mexico; McInerney, the University of Notre Dame. The programs of both schools were inspired by the Great Books program first organized by John Maynard Hutchins (with the inspiration and advice of Mortimer Adler) at the University of Chicago in the late 1940s.
At the University of Notre Dame I faced a dilemma when it came time to choose a major. I was equally interested in American Literature and American History but couldn’t decide which to choose. How can one study American history without reading American literature? How can one read Moby Dick without knowing something about the history of the (whale) oil business?
Then someone told me that Notre Dame had a Great Books program major within the College of Liberal Arts. The idea was a direct confrontation between the student and the greatest writers in history. Don’t read critiques of Shakespeare. Read Shakespeare!
For three years we sat in a circle and discussed the greatest works of philosophy, literature, religion and history for two hours every Monday and Friday. It changed my life.
I moved from Detroit to Houston in 1979. But it was in August of 1983 when I came across copies of The Wayfarer, the Houston Great Books newsletter at the Heights library. It announced their semi-annual city-wide meeting would be held in the Heights. There I met Kathleen Lipscomb. At this time there were only three groups in Houston: the Looscan library group, the Spring Branch library group, and the Westbury group of which David Saletan was a member. But what about the Heights? What about Montrose? Surely there had to be intelligent readers in these two areas. But how to find them? We had no idea but decided to try. With the aid of a superb poster designed by Kathleen (she is an architect) we began to distribute them around town.
The program was a success from the start. That October we had six people to dissect the Declaration of Independence. In November five showed up to discuss Aristotle’s definition of happiness. In December we had nine for Orwell’s 1984. In January of 1984 eighteen people showed up for Antigone. We did not know if people would come to a book discussion on a Saturday afternoon. It was a gamble which paid off. People can sleep in, finish reading the book, come to the discussion at 2:00pm, go out to dinner at 4:00pm and still have their Saturday evening to themselves.
Another innovation was choosing books every four months instead of once a year. This was the idea of former Heights member Paul Hyde. This has kept the process dynamic and interesting. People don’t have to commit for an entire year. It is a safeguard against members who may drop out or move out of town. We originally purchased our books from the Great Books Foundation starting in 1984. We started choosing our own books in 1991.
When we started out in 1983 there were only three groups active in Houston. Today there are twenty-one. No other city in the U.S. (the world?) comes even close. This astonishing achievement is due to two men: the aforementioned Paul Hyde and David Saletan. Paul was the managing editor of the newspaper in Tomball. Working with David, Paul managed to place articles in virtually every small suburban newspaper in Houston explaining our program. But it was David who did the legwork in nurturing these various groups beginning in the 1990s and into the current century.