Reading Odyssey’s odyssey

I’m preparing for the first meeting of the Reading Odyssey board this Wednesday, September 30, 2009. I’d like to tell you about some of the interesting conversations we are having and get your input.

We began as a commitment between two friends to read the great books together (from Homer to Shakespeare, Darwin and Einstein, etc) over the rest of our lifetime. Our first discovery was that other people wanted to join us and that using the phone as our monthly meeting was not just convenient, but made it possible for people from around the world to join us. Surprisingly, the phone also encouraged better, more serious conversations (i.e. we didn’t get more into drinking and food then into talking).

Next, we discovered that scholars were eager to help and accepted our invitations to join us by phone to talk about the books we were reading and the ideas we were discussing. That was thrilling. Then to increase awareness of what we are doing and to reach people who would not immediately say yes to reading Darwin or Aristotle, we started experimenting with campaigns on Facebook and large-scale lectures via webcast and teleconferencing. We attracted hundreds of thousands to participate and now have touched millions.

Four and a half years after we started the odyssey, we now host many activities like Slow Art in 16 cities around the world, the global Darwin150 campaign and tomorrow’s Xenophon conference in New York.

Yet, there’s still nothing more important to us than encouraging adults to read at least one great book of history, philosophy, math, poetry, literature, art or science  – from Homer to Joyce, from Herodotus to Darwin – written over the last 2,500 years. We are running four reading groups this fall – more than we’ve ever done at once.

Some of the questions the board will be addressing include typical questions any organization faces: how do we clearly define our purpose and our strategy? How do we know if we are on track? What’s the unmet need that we are meeting for our target audience: mainstream (i.e. non-academic) adults? What’s our model for sustaining and growing? Are there people out there who would like to be members of the Reading Odyssey? We think there are and are planning a membership campaign. We debate between micro-membership fees of $3 or $12 a year or more standard membership programs like $25 or $50.

Can we get foundation or corporate support? We do have corporate and media sponsors today who help promote us and donate service – i.e. Citrix Online donates all of our teleconferencing services. National Geographic is the media sponsor of Darwin150. We are great at getting important in-kind support but can we raise serious money? We have just finished a proposal to raise the money needed for our two-year Marathon2500 lecture series, suite of reading groups, live conference and social media campaigns – it’s the biggest thing to date that we have contemplated. What will the response be?

We care that most adults have not read a serious book since college and have not discussed science or math since high school. We think a democracy and a good economy needs citizens who can think, reflect, consider and be more creative. We think there’s a direct link between good leadership and ongoing education and reading. We also think that innovation in business, government, the arts is dependent on people having access to and understanding a wide range of the big ideas across all the disciplines.

But, even as we think these things we recognize that what we are doing is really quite simple and we should not over blow the purpose. We are reading books. We are discussing those books. We are looking at art. We are learning.

And we are having fun. I’d like to think that we are playful and serious but I’m constantly challenged to manage that balance and to communicate it to the wider public. Barry Strassler in his lecture to us in early September emphasized that he saw us as playing with ideas and that that playfulness was important.

I agree. My friend Carrie Lobman, a Rutgers Education Professor and a leading expert on play, and the work of her colleagues at the East Side Institute has certainly influenced me.

Still, even as we embrace play – and we are certainly playful in our social media campaigns – we have the problem that when many people hear we are reading Aristotle, they run the other way. Yet, they are missing the wonder and amazement of reading Aristotle 2,500 years later. How do we change that?

In an age dominated by blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook and the 15-second sound bite, we are on a lifelong odyssey to explore humanity’s greatest writing, thinking, works of art, science, math, literature, history and philosophy and hoping to make it accessible – and maybe even fun – for everyone.

What do you think about what we are doing? Give us some feedback here on the blog. The board meeting is tomorrow. I look forward to your comments.

30. September 2009 by Arrian
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