University of Rochester
Alumni Relations

An Odyssey of Great Books

A new program invites alumni to join a conversation with the past.
By Robin L. Flanigan

BOOK TALK: Thomas Hahn, a professor of English, makes a point during a session of “Great Books and What to Do with Them,” an alumni-oriented series sponsored by the Office of Alumni Relations.

Stephen Dunn ’76 (Mas) wanted to study great works of literature in college, but found no time for non-engineering courses while studying for his master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace science. Things are different now that he’s retired, so this spring he signed up for a seven-week series called “Great Books and What to Do with Them,” sponsored by the Office of Alumni Relations.

Offered to alumni and led by Thomas Hahn, a professor of English and director of graduate studies in literature, the series at the Alumni and Advancement Center explored historical works more than 3,000 years old and their influence on later writing, from medieval authors such as Dante and Chaucer to Joel and Ethan Coen’s modern film O Brother, Where Art Thou?

“I remember getting into the car to drive to the first course,” Dunn recalls. “I said to myself, ‘I’m finally going to get to do this. It’s been almost 35 years, but today’s the day.’ I have this desire to focus on hearing the ideas that people have written down for centuries, to think about them and reflect on them at this point in my life. It’s just perfect for me.”

The series, which focused on new translations of epic poems The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, is based on the premise that great books matter only if people read and think about them—and then gather to discuss them. Its success has prompted planning of another session next fall, this time on ancient and modern tragedies.

“The point of these kinds of conversations is not simply to allow people to talk to one another, but to allow them to talk to the dead,” explains Hahn. “To make some sense of continuity with the past.”

The next step—perhaps a more important step, according to Hahn—is to “learn to read resistantly,” which he describes as acknowledging what’s in the text and then interpreting it based on personal experience.

That’s why Marni Rabinowitz loves historical literature.

“You can connect it to the modern world and make sense of what’s going on around you, even when that world is chaotic,” says the high school English teacher, who took some English classes at the University in the 1990s and teaches The Odyssey to sophomores.

Rabinowitz says she’s “regaining my sympathy for what it feels like to speak up in class” and considers it “a privilege” to witness Hahn’s passion and sense of humor. “It’s exciting to be guided through literature but not be told what to think. He enourages you to reflect and come up with your own interpretations.”

Rigmor Miller ’80, ’86N, ’91N (Mas) has a past voyage of her own for reference. In 2005, she and her husband ended an eight-year residence on a 38-foot sailboat named Perseverance.

The boat was aptly named.

“I have my own odyssey,” she jokes.

Miller unites the past and present by drawing connections between her readings and the tribal culture in Afghanistan, as well as her native Sweden’s attempts to take care of Iraqi refugees.

With students of varying backgrounds and multiple interpretations of sensitive topics such as violence and gender and sexual identity, literary debates can get quite serious.

“A course like this is supposed to provide the people who are there with a kind of common ground to articulate profound questions in nontrivial ways,” says Hahn.

The fact that great works of literature continue to get national media attention in print and on the radio validates their relevancy in the 21st century.

“It’s not just my conviction, but it’s inevitably the case that unless these books actually live inside people’s bodies and minds, they don’t live at all,” Hahn goes on, adding that his older students find themselves thinking about the works while in the shower, over breakfast, and at other random moments. Even those who have read them before “have been surprised by these books, not just pleasured or satisfied by them, and that makes this worthwhile.

“It’s their repeatability—that’s the very thing that makes these ‘Great Books.’ ”

Robin L. Flanigan is a Rochester-based freelance writer.