Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Coming Together to Discuss Things Falling Apart

by Kristine Bergman

This past weekend the Great Books Foundation hosted the 13th annual Great Books Chicago weekend, three days of cultural events and stimulating Shared Inquiry™ discussions all relating to the theme “Things Fall Apart.”

The weekend began at the Art Institute of Chicago, where attendees viewed six different artworks, including Death of the Poet Walter Rheiner by Conrad Felixmuller, Auguste Rodin’s sculpture Eve After the Fall, and Portrait of Marevna by Diego Rivera. Discussion leaders shared background information on each work and opened discussion relating the work to the weekend’s theme.

The first Shared Inquiry discussion focused on William Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. One of the bard’s lesser known plays, it tells the story of Lord Timon, who is overly liberal with his money and gives it away freely to his friends. His generosity catches up with him, and Timon finds himself in enormous debt. It was a challenging play to discuss, even for participants well-versed in Shakespeare. However, a Shared Inquiry discussion can shed light on difficult material, and the discussion was spirited, especially on the subject of Lord Timon's nature, and the question Whom should we blame when things fall apart?

 Participants also attended a performance of Timon of Athens at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and the production provided a possible answer to this question. Director Barbara Gaines’s Timon of Athens features a modern Wall Street-like setting, and Lord Timon is not portrayed as innocent in his downfall. By joining Shakespearean themes with a modern setting and timely issues, the production brought to life the story that many had struggled to understand.

Saturday began with a discussion of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The novel tells the story of Okonkwo, through whom we learn about the habits and rituals of a Nigerian tribe and come to know a man determined to achieve power and respect, in contrast to the failures of his father. Okonkwo’s plans are disrupted when white missionaries enter the Niger with plans to "reform" the tribe. Though the language is simple, the book is complex. Its depiction of a powerful male figure’s demise connected the novel with Timon of Athens, and raised the question When do things begin to fall apart?

Following lunch at Maggiano’s there was a brief welcome talk and then a performance by BoyGirlBoyGirl, which consisted of four spoken monologues, including one by Great Books Senior K-12 Editor Rachel Claff. Each monologue shared a personal experience, reflecting a time for the speaker when things were falling apart. On Saturday evening attendees were free to explore Chicago on their own.

The final discussion, on Sunday, focused on a selection of poems, including “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child” by Gerald Manley Hopkins, “The Armadillo” by Elizabeth Bishop, “Reality Demands” by Wislawa Szymborska, and “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats. The discussion question was Should we resist things falling apart? Tackling five complex poems in a 90-minute period was a challenge, but the conversation was emotionally moving, and at times somber, as participants reflected on life and its tragedies.

The final event of the weekend was a talk by Great Books Foundation chairman of the board, Alex Pollock, who discussed things falling apart as related to the economy. Pollock provided a positive perspective on the weekend's theme, demonstrating that economic failure (or “bust”) is part of a cycle that has happened over and over again throughout the centuries, and that after a certain period of time, things will come back together.

Great Books Chicago is a wonderful opportunity for anyone with a desire to be intellectually stimulated and culturally entertained. Especially meaningful are the connections people forge with with one another during the weekend—connections which are easily made because everyone already shares a love of reading, learning, and discussing.

Kristine Bergman is an editorial and marketing assistant at the Great Books Foundation. She is a recent graduate of Amherst College in Massachusetts and will enter Loyola University Chicago School of Law in the fall.


  1. Marvelous recap, Kristine, of our weekend together at the "Things Fall Apart" Great Book Chicago Conference. Reading your review brought a smile as your story brought me back to vivid memories of the pleasant people, colorful conversations, amazing artworks, and even tasty treats.

    Best wishes on your continuing adventures and Loyola University studies. (

  2. Our group in Wheaton Illinois has discussed all of the poems you used except "Ozymandias." How was it for discussion? It's a smashing poem!
    Bev Jirsa

    1. Hello Bev.

      Even though it is a little unusual, Ozymandias is a great poem for discussion. GBC was the first time I led it with adults. I have led it three or four times with High School students. Every time it has worked well, yielding surprising ideas and insights.

  3. I feel that Oxymandias is a really accessible poem for all its complexities. I wish we would have had more time to discuss it at the conference. I loved attending this conference and look forward to it next year.