From Great Books
To Winnie Ille Pu
Did you know
that when the Grapes of Wrath was first translated into
Japanese, its title was rendered as Angry Raisins? You
might, if you'd recently visited the bookstore at St. John's College,
where this factoid is posted. It's possible, however, that you
wouldn't even notice it, hanging hip-level on a shelf among the
14,000 books that occupy the 900-square-foot store in the basement
of Humphreys Hall on the college campus.
Bookstore manager Robin Dunn, a 40-something Scotland native with
the lilting rhythms of a Edinburgh accent slipping into his speech,
describes the store as unlike the bookstores we're used to these
days: "It's rather quaint, a little down at the heel. There is
no music playing and the store is rather more crowded---with books,
not people---than other bookshops."
While the store is mainly used by the St. John's College community,
tourists sometimes find their way in, and people from town occasionally
visit, looking for readings for book clubs. A small group of Annapolitans,
Dunn says, have made it their private haunt. "I've noticed a few
townies who come in during weekday lunch. We have several regulars.
They putter in, browse, once in a while they buy something. It's
like they make a hobby of visiting," he says.
While the regulars know what to expect from the St. John's bookstore,
one-time visitors are surprised by the lack of team t-shirts and
sweats that are bestsellers at most college stores. "We have no
team sweatshirts because we have no intercollegiate sports," Dunn
explains. He adds that he does carry caps, sweatshirts, and t-shirts
featuring the college's seal.
And bow ties. The store carries bow ties in St. John's colors---orange
and black. Perhaps not your usual campus store gear, but at a
school where waltz parties are de rigeur and croquet
is the major team sport, there's call for them.
Dunn says the bookstore sells about 10 bow ties a semester---not
bad for a school with just 450 students. But that's nothing compared
to the 60,000 books he sells each year. As many as half of these
are what are known as Program books---books that are read as part
of the St. John's "Great Books Program."
The Great Books Program is St. John's only curriculum---an all-required
course of study centered around the reading and discussion of
the great works of the Western tradition. These books cover the
major scholarly disciplines: science, mathematics, philosophy,
theology, literature, history, music, astronomy and art. They
span thousands of years, from Euclid's geometry and Homer's Iliad
through Flannery O'Connor's short stories and Einstein's theory
The heart of the Program is seminar, a twice-weekly class where
about 20 students meet with two tutors to discuss works of philosophy,
theology, literature and history. The bookstore devotes an entire
30-foot-long wall to seminar readings. Its floor-to-ceiling shelves
seem to hold every book you've ever intended to read: Plato's
Republic, Tolstoy's War and Peace, Dante's Divine
Comedy, Milton's Paradise Lost. And the store goes
far beyond stocking every book on the seminar list; it also carries
several translations of those written in foreign languages.
Who would need more than one translation? At St. John's, students
study language for four years---two of Ancient Greek and two of
French. They pay special attention to the nuances of syntax and
word choice, and so an appreciation for---and sometimes a fascination
with---the translator's art is not unusual. Dunn says he knows
many students who buy more than one translation. "They're often
the ones who like to buy hardbacks, as well. One senses they are
building a library," he says. "I see that as a sign that the Program
is working---encouraging a more profound examination of the very
language of the texts."
Dunn himself has been reading a lot of non-fiction these days.
He is currently writing three books on aviation history and spends
hours poring over old books and magazines for his projects. Among
them is the first complete history of the now-retired aircraft,
the Vicker's Viscount, the world's first turbine-powered airliner.
The book, written for Air Life (a specialty press), will be published
For pleasure, Dunn reads widely but says that his favorite authors
are along the lines of John Le Carré, William Boyd, Martin Amis
and V.S. Naipaul. His broad tastes are apparent in the bookstore.
The morning V.S. Naipaul was named the 2001 Nobel Prize winner
for literature, students working in the bookstore were able to
put together a display of the novelist's work because the small
store already had 10 of his books on hand.
While Dunn is first and foremost devoted to the works on the Great
Books Program, the bookstore is a lively place, where visitors
can find interesting, provocative, beautiful, and whimsical books
among the classics. The store carries Antoine de Saint-Exupery's
The Little Prince as well as Machiavelli's The Prince.
Winnie Ille Pu (Winnie the Pooh in Latin) might
be purchased as a treat after spending weeks immersed in Virgil's
Aeneid. A palm-sized Joy of Cooking is available,
as is a work of scholarship called The Simpsons and Philosophy.