Discussion group at University Press Bookstore in Berkeley (2019)


Book Discussion Groups

Over the last two decades I’ve led or taken part in a number of book discussion groups. Some have dealt with radical works such as Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle or articles from the Situationist International Anthology. Others have explored various literary classics, from Homer and Shakespeare to Proust and Joyce. These two types of groups involve rather different aims and attitudes, but I think they also complement each other. The first type focuses on radical tactics and strategy — how we might better understand and transform the absurd socio-economic system in which we find ourselves. The second is more leisurely and open-ended — exploring imaginative works that enliven and potentially illuminate our lives in general.

But precisely because they deal with the basic archetypes of human experience, these latter works often turn out to be surprisingly relevant to present-day issues. They continue to engage us because they address the perennial life issues that we all face in one way or another. They give us a better sense of the varieties and potentialities of human experience, from the sublime to the ridiculous. They raise difficult questions rather than offering easy answers. And contrary to popular misconception, they are also among the most entertaining books ever written; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t have continued to be eagerly read and reread by countless people over the centuries.

Since January 2016 I’ve led a group called “Exploring the Classics.” Until March 2020 it was hosted by University Press Bookstore in Berkeley. Following a short hiatus at the beginning of the pandemic, the group resumed in July 2020 via Zoom, and will probably continue that way indefinitely. Although we miss the previous in-person conviviality, we would miss even more the many new friends in other parts of the country, and even in other countries, whose participation Zoom has made possible.

Since September 2023 I’ve also been leading a Zoom group called “Exploring the Situationists.” While the Classics group is usually small enough to permit pretty free-form discussion, the Situationist one has significantly more participants, and the nature of the material generally requires more detailed explanations, so I’ve organized it more like a “webinar” in which I make introductory remarks and comments on the texts, followed by Q&A. The group went through all of the Situationist International Anthology and is now going through The Society of the Spectacle. If the meetings continue to go as well as they have so far, I may continue the series with other situationist texts. You can see the schedule and video recordings of the previous Zoom sessions of the Situationist group here. (The Classics meetings are not recorded.)

These two groups meet on alternating Sundays, 5:00-7:00 p.m. Pacific Time, and both are free. Let me know if you’d like to take part in either of them.

Below are the previous readings of the Classics group and the tentative upcoming schedule (with number of meetings in brackets).

Cervantes, Don Quixote [12]
Montaigne, Selected Essays [10]

Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel [6]
Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress [4]
Swift, Gulliver’s Travels [4]
Madame de Lafayette, The Princesse de Clèves [4]
Defoe, Moll Flanders [4]

Fielding, Tom Jones [7]
Sterne, Tristram Shandy [7]
Diderot, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master [4]
Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (abridged) + Selected Writings by Johnson [7]

Stendhal, The Red and the Black [5]
Balzac, Lost Illusions [6]
Flaubert, Madame Bovary [5]
Marx, Writings on the French Revolution of 1848 [4]
Blake, Selected Poems [4]

Whitman, Selected Poems [4]
Baudelaire, Selected Poems [1]
[Meetings suspended mid-March through June, then resumed via Zoom]
Baudelaire, Selected Poems [4]
Rimbaud, Selected Poems + A Season in Hell [4]
French Poets 1850-1950 [5]

French Songs 1800-2000 [10]
Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End [8]
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook [5]
The Epic of Gilgamesh [2]

Bhagavad Gita [2]
Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught [2]
Tao Te Ching [2]
Chuang Tzu [2]
Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, 101 Zen Stories [2]
Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind [2}
Classic Chinese Poetry [4]
Basho, Selected Haikus + Narrow Road to the Interior [4]
Women Poets of Japan and China [2]
Tsao Hsueh-chin, The Dream of the Red Chamber (abridged) [3]

Sappho and The Greek Anthology [3]
Greek Drama [7]
Herodotus, The Persian Wars [6]
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (excerpts) [1]
Petronius, The Satyricon [2]
Apuleius, The Golden Ass [2]
Arabian Nights [3]

The Kalevala [3]
Njal’s Saga
Paul Radin, Primitive Man as Philosopher [2]
Paul Radin & James Johnson Sweeney (eds.), African Folktales and Sculpture [2]
Jaime de Angulo, Indian Tales [2]
Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds [1]
Kenneth Rexroth (ed.), The Poetry of Preliterate Peoples (unpublished anthology) [3]
Shakespeare and Robert Burns, Selected Songs [2]
British Traditional Ballads [2]
American Folksongs and Blues [5]


Information on Ken Knabb’s book discussion groups. No copyright.

See also:

Classics Revisited (Rexroth)
Gateway to the Vast Realms: Recommended Readings from Literature to Revolution (Knabb)