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2. Hit the Books

37b_books.jpgJUST NOT FOR CREDIT
For 15 years, using the academic year for a calendar and a Swarthmore professor as their guide, alumni in the Washington, D.C., area have come together over books. This year’s theme is “Memoirs of Africa,” with a reading list compiled by Professor of History Timothy Burke, who will visit Washington three times for a fall introductory lecture, a midwinter check-in, and a wrap-up in the spring. This month, the group is reading Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. The list of eight memoirs will wrap up with George Packer’s Village of Waiting in May.

Swarthmore book groups are also found in New York (also reading memoirs of Africa with Burke this year), Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Tucson, and Seattle. Although not all have the benefit of a visiting professor, members find that the discussions often recreate the give-and-take of the Swarthmore classroom.

Pamela St. John Zurer ’71 has coordinated the Washington book group for the past four years, taking over from Sue Willis Ruff ’60, who got it started in the mid-1990s when Philip Weinstein, the Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English Literature, offered a series focused on character development in fiction with Madame Bovary. Today, there are more than 400 potential readers on the email list and up to 150 actually participating in 10 different “discussion sections” that meet monthly in private homes throughout the DC area. Plenary sessions with the professor are often held at Politics and Prose, one of Washington’s best independent bookstores.

Zurer says the DC book group has “really cemented my ties with the College.” The success of the Washington group, she says, can be laid squarely on the unusual model developed by Ruff, in which a volunteer professor creates a syllabus that often “introduces us to works that I don’t think we would have discovered on our own,” Zurer says, crediting the professors for “really making it an incredible experience.”

“I also love the fact that the book groups are intergenerational,” Zurer says. “They give young alumni a chance to stay connected to their Swarthmore experience when they move to Washington and give us older folks some really fresh approaches to reading.”



• No book group where you live? A new blog invites alumni anywhere to take part online in this year’s New York–Washington groups. You’ll find the reading list for “Memoirs of Africa,” introductory remarks by Professor Burke (an inveterate blogger who built the site), notes and discussion suggestions on each of the books—even “further reading!” (This is so Swarthmore that it hurts.) The discussion has already started, so check it out right away at

• Keep up with academic life at Swarthmore through one of the Facebook groups that have formed around various disciplines. Three examples: “Swarthmore College English Literature Majors” was started this year by William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English Literature Peter Schmidt. It has about 300 “likes” and contains a running wall of comments about what people are up to English-wise and otherwise. The “Swarthmore Student–Alumni Japan Interest Group” was started by Associate Professor Will Gardner. It’s a “closed” group, but if you have an interest in Japan and Japanese, by all means ask to join. With nearly 100 members, “Swarthmore College Art History” describes itself as “for art history majors and minors—past, present, and future.”

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