Classics Revisited Book Club Celebrates 30th Anniversary

Classics Revisited, a book club dedicated to reading classic literature, is marking its 30th anniversary this year. Book club members include (from left) seated, Lesley Kalb, Carole Budzenski, Katherine Thompson, founder Ginny Dean, Howard and Sarah Abts and Chris and Susan Barry; and standing, Kathy Chamberlain, Laura Kemp and Sandy and John Wasserman. MIRROR PHOTO BY KAREN GERHARDINGER

BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — In 1994, Ginny Dean went to the Waterville Library to look for a copy of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, a Victor Hugo novel published in 1831.

“They didn’t have it,” said Dean, who was told that because classics are rarely requested, the book wasn’t on shelves. “At that point, I started Classics Revisited, for those books you encountered in high school or college but are true classics that you should read at every stage in your life.”

Next month, Classics Revisited – the only book club of its kind in Ohio – will mark its 30th anniversary, gathering for a party that will undoubtedly include some book discussion.

“I started this so that people can read books that they wouldn’t otherwise read on their own,” Dean said.

In 30 years, the members have read over 300 books, including poetry, fiction, nonfiction, mystery, humor, horror, biography and speeches from authors around the world.

The oldest book undertaken by the club has been The Epic of Gilgamesh, a series of Mesopotamian tales dating back to 2000 B.C. The newest is Ken Follett’s 1989 historical fiction work, Pillars of the Earth.

“Classics give you a broader perspective of human life. What we keep discovering is that a lot of the stupidities in the 1500s are still there. We haven’t learned,” laughed Dean.

Gathered in Sandy and John Wasserman’s Waterville home last week, a dozen of the club members shared why the classics matter and how reading them has impacted their lives.

“It broadens your mind when you read these books,” said Lesley Kalb. 

Carole Budzenski admits that she tried and gave up on reading Gabriel García Márquez’s 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, so when Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera was on the list, she was hesitant. Yet the 1985 novel by the Colombian author now sticks with her.

“It was set in Latin America, and it really made me see things from another point of view. It’s a different pace to life and a different set of values,” Budzenski said.

Laura and Tom Kemp found a love for Shakespeare.

“I remember Ginny said this is meant to be read aloud, so Tom and I would read it to each other. Our cat didn’t like it,” Laura laughed. “It’s been one of the highlights for me so far.”

While Sandy admits that she’s challenged by Shakespeare – mostly because of his poetic form – she gains insight from hearing other club members discuss it. The Hajji Baba of Ispahan, written by James Morier in 1824, is the first book that hooked her, Sandy said. The book provides a glimpse of life in Iran in the early 1800s.

“I appreciated reading Pilgrim’s Progress, Gilgamesh and Paradise Lost,” said Sarah Abts, “and Ginny introduced me to Dracula. I’m not a fan of that kind of movie, but I learned about vampires through the book.”

Several members referenced Madame de Stael, by Maria Fairweather.

A philosopher, writer and critic of Napoleon Bonaparte – who exiled her from France – the real de Stael was the cultural queen of the Lake Geneva area, where literary people gathered in the 1800s.

“Reading Madame de Stael, I learned a great deal that I otherwise would not have known about modern European history,” said Howard Abts. “Part of the value of the group for me is to be nudged to read things I wouldn’t read on my own.”

Sarah noted that the readings help tie together pieces of history and literature she’s read about over the years. Those connections are easier to make because Dean brings in articles, maps and related readings, the members agreed.

When the club read The Master and Margarita, a 1967 novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, Dean invited a Ukrainian woman to come and talk about life in the former USSR during the Stalin period, and that gave perspective to the book, Susan Barry said.

“Ginny’s gift to me was putting together the names of the authors, dates that they lived and who was king at the time,” said Katherine Thompson. “It’s so enriching to fit the literature into the world.”

John Wasserman, an attorney who has served on Waterville’s Planning Commission for years, said reading the classics has given him perspectives on politics in different societies.

While she taught fourth and sixth grade at Waterville School early in her career, the 87-year-old Dean spent 25 years as a travel consultant. Through her research for clients and her own travels, Dean has been able to provide perspective to the readings.

After reading The Diary of Samuel Pepys, an 1825 look at politics, the church and life in 17th-century England, Kalb traveled to London, where she saw sites mentioned in the book. 

“The discussion is so wonderful because this group is so knowledgeable and traveled and willing to share,” Kalb said.

Chris Barry also serves as a source, as the Ireland native has traveled extensively, including walking from London to Katmandu.

Reading Zorba the Greek, or about Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan are essential to understanding how people lived, their values and how they intersect with western cultures, Chris believes.

“I was looking at other countries from a western European perspective,” he said. “Traveling made me realize that people are the same the world over. We have different currencies, languages, accents, likes and dislikes, but we’re all essentially the same people, and this reading reinforces that.”

The only necessity to join Classics Revisited is a desire to read and discuss the books, Dean said. She’s hoping to find someone to take over leadership of the club, which has fluctuated in membership over the years. Founding members Kathie Schroeder and Elaine Spreitzer are no longer able to attend but keep up with the reading. Kathy Chamberlain is another founding member, and she attends regularly. Other members include Lydia Allen, Aleta Bonini, Paige Koosed, John Starr and Diane Toffler.

Many of the books are unavailable from the library, but Dean recommends ABE Books and other online used book stores. 

The May book is Colin Fletcher’s The Man Who Walked Through Time. Over the summer, the club will read Virgil’s The Aeneid.

For information about participating in Classics Unlimited, contact Dean at vldworldtraveler@gmail.com or call (419) 878-3383.

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