Classical Pursuits is Good for Your Mind

An older Asian woman sitting down with her tablet and a cup of coffee

At the turn of the century, nineteen years ago, I was feeling uninspired and disconnected from literature and ideas. Probably I was feeling disconnected from myself, that person who once kept a book on my night table and couldn’t help but make reading the center of much of my emotional and intellectual life. Teaching at a community college is a great job and no one in her right mind should complain about it. But in 2000, I’d been teaching older adolescents for more than a decade and I was feeling unfulfilled. On my way out of the college’s front door for the summer break, I picked up a brochure about a week-long event at the University of Toronto called Classical Pursuits.

The brochure explained that interested participants would meet in morning seminars to discuss particular literary topics. The seminars were associated with Chicago’s Great Books Foundation and many of the seminar leaders were experts at establishing the animated and thoughtful “shared inquiry” method of examining and finding meaning in carefully selected texts. The cost was reasonable (and still is) and booking lodgings at a University of Toronto dormitory was possible. For my seminar, I chose George Eliot’s Middlemarch for the week and in so doing, I put myself back on track to reading good books and contemplating writing a novel myself.

The seminar was chock full of interesting people, mostly older adults, from across North America. I recall making friends with a woman from New York City who was bubbling over with insights about Middlemarch and also about staying intellectually sharp as we age. She was retired, older than I was, and I recall hoping I could be like her as I aged.

After the morning sessions, there was lunch where we had a chance to meet folks from other seminars and to talk less formally. Many of the participants also travelled with Classical Pursuits, mostly on tours of Europe connected in some way to great books or artistic movements. One gentleman rose to say he was intending to attend enough travel excursions that his children shouldn’t plan on an inheritance.

After lunch, I returned to my dormitory room at Massey College, a haven of peaceful reflection, smack in the middle of downtown Toronto. The room was simple: a single bed, a desk, study lamp and chair, with a shared washroom. I reveled in the simplicity and the quiet. I’d walk to Book City on Bloor where I bought a book each evening and so I started to read again, seriously and deeply, the way I had when I was studying literature at university.

I’d only ventured 45 kilometers from home to attend Classical Pursuits in the city, yet I don’t believe I could have done more for myself if I’d travelled half way around the world. I felt renewed. Once I returned home, I continued to read books with a renewed voracity, and along with reading I began to write. I often thought back to the discussions about Middlemarch, and how George Eliot, fearless with her immense talent, depicted Victorian society with its plethora of social rules and imperfections. Over time, my experience at Classical Pursuits coloured my imagination and culminated in the writing of my own novels.

Over the years, Ann Kirkland, the original President and Founder of Classical Pursuits, kept in touch, kindly congratulating me when I published my books. This year, executive director, Melanie Blake, invited me to speak about a column I wrote for; I was thrilled. I asked two Toronto writers to join me, Susan Crean and Anita Lerek, and we three spoke about what it’s like to write as older women and how that influences our relationships with publishers, the media and our audience.

Ms. Blake describes Toronto Classical Pursuits this way: “Come for the book, come back for the people—over the years, we’ve realized that’s how a lot of us, participants and leaders alike, think about Toronto Pursuits. You come to this week of seminar discussions to read a book that’s been on your bucket list, or to learn about a topic you didn’t even know you were interested in until you saw our program. But as the first day unfolds, you begin to see that what makes this week special is the chance to connect with others by discussing not what they do for a living, not which summer camp their grandkids are attending, but their ideas. Where do they stand on the big questions about love, death, beauty, knowledge, faith, and justice that people have been asking themselves for ages. Disagreements are common—and welcome—but through this experience of exploring compelling works of art and literature so deeply, real friendships form. You leave replenished, both intellectually and emotionally. Many people tell us it’s their favourite week of the year.”

This year, I participated in a seminar about Homer’s Odyssey. The new translation of the 12,000-line poem by Emily Wilson is breathtaking. At night I found myself reviewing Homer’s words written almost 3,000 years ago, playing them over and over again in my mind and marveling at his sophisticated grasp of human nature and his exploration of what it means to be a human being.

Next summer from July 14 to 19, 2020, Classical Pursuits will be back at Victoria College at the University of Toronto. Blake and her education director, Mark Cwik, are offering nine new seminars. “The theme of Toronto Pursuits 2020 is pivot points,” says Blake. “We’re going to look at works created in the wake of events such as the French Revolution that caused tremendous social and artistic upheaval, and works that were game-changers in themselves, such as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species or Impressionist paintings. There will be something for everyone—Beethoven, spy novels, E.M. Forster, 20th-century poetry, and post-structuralism (don’t be scared!) are all on offer. Plus a rich range of programs in the afternoon and evening, including a five-day opera presentation series, guided walks in Toronto, film screenings, museum visits, and concerts.”

In 2020 I’ll be leading the seminar on spy novels and if you’re interested in finding out more about any of the seminars, I encourage you to reach out.

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