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Happy Valentine’s Day, Book Lovers!

Happy Valentine’s Day, Book Lovers!

Last night at Polis we had a lively class on two love poems by William Carlos Williams (accompanied by a delicious selection of dessert beers from our friends at Healthy Spirits beer store).  In a nod to Valentine’s Day, our class was co-lead by two “scholars in love”.  At the start of the class Anton and Inga shared with the group that they read the William Carlos Williams poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” at their wedding ceremony. The group of 13 students jumped into analyzing and discussing that poem as well as “The Ivy Crown“.  Class participants grappled with topics ranging from forgiveness and love, old love vs. young love, and male pronouncements of love vs. those of women. Together, we looked to the poems to help us to better understand the various textures and shapes that love can take in a lifetime.

Last night, a student shared with the group:

I am here in class tonight because I want to know how to better read and understand poetry. I also want to know how to better understand love!”.

In “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower“, William Carlos Williams wrote :

I have learned much in my life from books and out of them about love.”

Books can provide us with examples of how to live in love. They also provide us with many examples of love gone bad!

On this Valentine’s Day, we wanted to share a brief and whimsical list of books, writings, and resources on the notion of love.

Enjoy (and eat some chocolate today— you deserve it!)

On Love…

From our friends at Brainpickings: “Modern Love: History’s Most Beautiful and Timelessly Bewitching LGBTQ Love Letters”

 And “Why We Love Books: 5 Books on The Psychology of Love

Check out this hilarious (and informative!) blog about an intimate life lived with books: Books Are My Boyfriends

The San Francisco Public Library has a terrific blog dedicated exclusively to the main library’s 6th Floor (the SF History Center). The Valentine’s edition of  the blog features an incredible photo from the archives. Check it out!

The Telegraph has a wonderful article in today’s paper titled, “Valentine’s Day Poems” in case you are in need for a last minutes poem for your loved one.




Time Magazine names it’s Top Ten Romantic Books of All Time



Sign Up for a Polis Class…

We are excited to announce our early Spring 2014 course offerings.

Check back on Monday 2/17 to find out what we’ve got in store for March and April!

How Long Have I Got Left?

What does it mean to contemplate death? Does thinking about death help us to live more fully? Can we ever really be prepared for the eventuality of death? What does it mean to live a good life knowing that our days are numbered?

Polis students asked these (and other) questions in our fall courses on Joyce’sThe Dead”, Montaigne’s essays, and Tolstoy’s, “The Death Of Ivan Ilych”.

Unintentionally, each of the  texts in our fall Polis courses has death as a theme.  Who would have thought that it could actually be enjoyable to sit at a seminar table with a group of strangers and dig deeply into questions about mortality? The craft beer selections certainly helped to make the atmosphere a little bit more festive in the midst of these otherwise weighty themes!

Discussing literature and philosophy can serve an important role in our lives. Dialogue about big ideas can be a catalyst for reflection about living  in the face of an acknowledgment of mortality.

Living a Full Life. How Should We Spend Our Time?

This Sunday’s New York Times included a thought-provoking Opinion piece about what it means to live with an acceptance of death. The author, a 36-year-old neurosurgeon at Stanford was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. He contemplates what it means to live his life with the certainty that he is going to die but the continuing uncertainty of when.

The author’s first and most persistent question upon learning his diagnosis is rooted in a deep desire to know, “How long do I have left?”. Somehow, he thought, knowing an answer to this question would give him a rudder about how to live well.

The author considers his choices for how to spend his time:

In a way, though, the certainty of death was easier than this uncertain life. Didn’t those in purgatory prefer to go to hell, and just be done with it? Was I supposed to be making funeral arrangements? Devoting myself to my wife, my parents, my brothers, my friends, my adorable niece? Writing the book I had always wanted to write? Or was I supposed to go back to negotiating my multiyear job offers?

He struggles with and works to elucidate his sense of “acuteness” in knowing that he is going to die.

I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.

The author’s courage to publicly grapple with his feelings about his own mortality is commendable. The piece brings readers into contact with so many of the themes about living and dying that arose in our Polis classes last semester.

How Can Literature and Philosophy Guide Us?

In Montaigne’s essay, “To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die”  the author challenges his reader:

Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life. Is it possible you can imagine never to arrive at the place towards which you are continually going? and yet there is no journey but hath its end. And, if company will make it more pleasant or more easy to you, does not all the world go the self-same way? Does not all the world dance the same brawl that you do? Is there anything that does not grow old, as well as you? A thousand men, a thousand animals, a thousand other creatures, die at the same moment that you die.

The group discussion in our Montaigne class was focused primarily on what Montaigne meant by “living long, and yet lived but a little”.

How can we live a full and meaningful life despite it’s length?

In the short story, “The Dead”, James Joyce’s characters present a variety of ways to live in the shadow of the knowledge that we are going to die.

Joyce describes the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy’s, inner battle to accept the realities of his past:

He watched the scene and thought of life; and (as always happened when he thought of life) he became sad. A gentle melancholy took possession of him. He felt how useless it was to struggle against fortune, this being the burden of wisdom which the ages had bequeathed him.

Polis students askedCan we have a meaningful life even if we are “struggling against fortune”?  How much of life is ours to control and how much is beyond our reach?

In the “Death of Ivan Ilych”, Ivan is forced to reckon with his imminent mortality with a recognition that he has not lived the type of life he could have because he was too focused on the “ought’s” and “should’s” of other people’s expectations. Tolstoy writes:

Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,’ it suddenly occurred to him. ‘But how could that be, when I did everything properly?’ he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.”

During the discussion of  Tolstoy’s work, a Polis student asked,I get it–he lived a life according to other’s expectations–but what is it that he would have done differently? What could have made Ivan feel that he had lived a full and good life as he lay on his death bed?”

Diving deeply into literature and philosophy won’t help us to find THE answer to questions about the good life and  an acceptance of death but discussions like those at Polis can help us to stop, briefly, on the treadmill of our daily routine and ask, “Am I living as I want to? Am I living as fully as I could? Am I adding meaning to my life and the lives of others?”

The philosopher Anaïs Nin writes: “There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” – The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934

Our life as an individual novel, a book for each person.

Join us for a Polis class in February. Meet interesting new people, read something you’ve always meant to, and chew on the big questions of life.


Interested in Reading More?

I Do Not Fear Death“, Roger EbertSalon,Sept. 15, 2011

Living Well, According to Some of  the Wisest People Who Ever Lived“,Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post,Aug. 28, 2013

Anais Nin on the Elusive Nature of Joy“,Maria Popova, Brainpickings, Nov. 12, 2013

Top Five Reasons Reading Books Still Matters

open a book this weekend.Happy Friday!

What are you going to do this weekend to feel fulfilled and recharged?

Do you have that book that you’ve been staring at for months and haven’t found the time to dive into it (*check out this new way of dealing with that problem  from Japan)?

When was the last time you browsed your local bookstore or library and serendipitously fell into a new topic or author? Book browsing is much more difficult online. Why not make some time this weekend for some browsing?

Why not, unplug for an hour if you can and dive into that book you’ve been meaning to get to.

We hope this top five list of reasons that books still can matter in our lives will be a motivation for you as you head into the weekend!

Top Five Reasons Reading Books Still Matters*

1. Reading books helps us to become more interesting people to be around. Tired of having the same conversation over and over again with your spouse or friends? Read a book and have something new to talk about.

2. Books are a gateway drug to increasing our curiosity. When we read we want to know more. We want to know how it ends. We want to know what else this author wrote. We start to ask “why” again.  Neil Gaiman writes: 


 Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable.

3. Books can be beautiful. Check out some of these images of books on display.

4. Reading books provides us with “souvenir of ideas“. Author Seth Godin writes:

A book is a physical souvenir, a concrete instantiation of your ideas in a physical object, something that gives your ideas substance and allows them to travel.

5. Reading Can Make Your Dating Life Better. Single? Reading books may help to improve your dating life. A new dating website in London is focused just on book lovers. Speed dating for readers is becoming a hot new trend in Canada.

* Okay, so these aren’t THE top five reasons for reading. But, they are a start. We want to hear from you. What are your reasons for reading?

Let Polis Help You Get Your Reading Groove Back!

Join us for our brand new December Polis course. This class will help you to find your reading groove, make time for reading, and meet new friends. We’d love to see you in class. Sign up today.

Only 2 spots left in our Drinkers and Great Thinkers class for next Wednesday (Nov. 13th). We are reading two essays by Montaigne and pairing the experience with Farmhouse Ales. Sign up today.

Building An Intentional Community

Polis Classroom: Welcoming our First Polis Classes, Sept. 2013

Polis Classroom: Welcoming our First Polis Classes, Sept. 2013

Is it possible to create an authentic adult community in a time when we are pulled in so many different directions? Between work, family, and all of our other life obligations can we find the time for community?

At Polis we believe that not only can a busy adult find a time and place for community (if the conditions are right) but that we must.  

We know that a sense of togetherness and a feeling of being truly known are often missing from our online interactions. Despite the scope of online connection, we still need face to face conversation with our neighbors. There is evidence that having strong ties to neighbors and community members can increase our overall health and happiness.

We’ve set out to create the space and time for Bay Area adults to find and cultivate in-person community through discussion of the big ideas in the liberal arts.

Last week we ended our first ever round of courses and by all accounts the discussions proved be a strong first step in building a lasting community. One student wrote  about his experience in class, saying:

I feel encouraged knowing that I now have a community in which I can read great books and discuss great questions together, which are activities that I really care about and are important for my well-being. 

This week, members of the Polis advisory board finished writing our “What We Believe” statement. It’s worth a read because it helps to further define and solidify the ideas behind the community that we are trying to build.

Last Sunday night we had our first Polis open gathering for students, prospective students, and instructors. The get- together was low key and filled with conversation about books and ideas but also about the raw material of our lives: love and dating, children, work, and travel. The majority of Polis members who attended our first gathering did not know one another before becoming affiliated with Polis.

Building a community will take time and patience.  But, we are in it for the long haul.

Will you join us?

Ways to get involved:

  • Follow this blog. You will then be placed on our our newsletter list and be kept up to date about future social gatherings, events, and courses.

Upcoming Courses. Register Today and Join the Polis Community.

readCOURSE: The Drinkers and Great Thinkers Series

This course series offers a chance for students who cannot make the commitment to a multi-part class to experience a Polis seminar. Students will read one seminal essay or short story for a single session class and the conversation with be carefully paired with a variety of micro-brew beers. The Drinkers and Great Thinkers series provides a good balance of community and meaningful discussion.The Drinkers and Great Thinkers course series are currently planned for November (2013) and  January, March, May (2014).

November Drinkers and Great Thinkers Course: Is There Meaning in Everything? What Can We Learn From the Mundane and Routine Parts of Life? The Essays of Michel de Montaigne + Saison Farmhouse Ale

In this one session Polis course, students will discuss a set of short essays (some are just one paragraph!) written by the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. Those who have never read Montaigne are in for a real treat. Montaigne is curious about nearly everything in his world: from the usefulness of thumbs to the purpose of love. Montaigne is a funny, pithy, and accessible writer. Our class conversation will focus on the essential question: Is there meaning in everything? We will engage in discussion about whether or not the mundane and routine parts of our lives can be instructive to us and if so, how? All classes in the Polis Drinkers and Great Thinkers series will pair the great thinker with an appropriate great beer selection that we will sample during class. In this case, we plan to pair Montaigne with a variety of Saison Farmhouse Style Ales (rooted in French and Belgian history and culture). The beer sampling is included in the course price.

Instructor: Mary Finn

When: November 13, 2013 (Wednesday) 7:00-8:30 PM

Where: The Women’s Building, 3543 18th St, SF

Eventbrite - Drinkers and Great Thinkers Series (class one: Montaigne's Essays + Saison Farmhouse Ales)

open book

Do We Have an Obligation to Help Others? What is the Basic Social Contract?

If a family member is going through a rough patch, of course we’ll do what we can to help them out, right? But what about a co-worker? Not so fast. And let’s say you’re on BART late at night and see a guy who looks like he’s had a few too many. Who among us is going to make sure he gets home safely? Of course, we can’t possibly offer help to everyone in the world who needs it. So where do we draw the line? Friends but not neighbors? Bay Area but not Central Valley? California but not Oklahoma? America but not Afghanistan?

In this course, we will be reading two classic short stories: Katherine Mansfield’s  ”The Garden Party” andHerman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener.” They are different in just about every way (for example, one is short, the other is long; one is creepy and dark, the other is sweet and bright, etc.), with one big exception: They both ask us to consider the ways we’re connected to the people around us, and the responsibilities of our shared humanity. We will discuss these weighty questions, and whatever other questions may come up.

Instructor: Daniel Herman

When:  December 3rd, 10th, 17th (Tuesdays)  7:00-8:30 PM

Where: The Women’s Building, 3543 18th St, SF

Eventbrite - Do we have an obligation to help others?


Doppelgängers: Is There Such a Thing as an Independent Individual? What Does it Mean to Claim Individuality?

The short story “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol and the novella The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad play with the notion of alternatives. What if there were another person or being just like you, but not you, who lived a parallel life alongside of you? These magnificent works explore the tantalizing, horrifying and sometimes hilarious possibilities of having a doppelganger or ghostly double whose appearance makes both characters and readers ask, “What does it mean to claim individuality? Is there such a thing as an independent individual?” During this three-week Polis session, we will examine together the sometimes mutually-exclusive notions of individuality and the longing for connections with others.

Instructor: Elen Greenblatt

When:  January 7, 14, 21 (Tuesdays) 7:00-8:30 PM

Where: The Women’s Building, 3543 18th St, SF

Eventbrite - Is There Such a Thing as an Independent Individual?

Share Polis With Your Friends

What Makes a Thriving City?

open book

Do you live in a great city?

5 billion people (60% of the world’s population) live in cities. I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about what makes a city great. The people? The landmarks and cultural institutions? The politics? The ability to get around easily?

You may wonder why we’ve decided on the name Polis for our organization.

When I think about what makes a thriving city (or “the Polis”) some books and historical examples come to mind.

The sociologist and journalist Jane Jacobs wrote in her The Death of American Cities (1961) about what she called the “street ballet” of robust cities: the vibrancy and “choreography” of city streets that are alive with interaction.

If you haven’t read Pericles’ Funeral Oration in a while (or ever!) check it out with the question, “What makes a city?” in mind. I think of this speech as a timeless shout-out to the concept of the city.

In a recent post about what makes a city great (in his case, NYC), author Seth Godin came up with this list:

  • It’s different here (as in not the same)
  • You can find someone to have an argument with, about just about anything
  • There are fringes–cultural, educational, architectural, societal
  • More than 42 languages are spoken at the Queens public library
  • You can get something that’s not the regular kind
  • There are profit-seekers who will happily sell you something, anything
  • There are many who do things for no profit at all and will eagerly entertain, entrance and change you for the better
  • You will find a diversity of religious belief like no other
  • It’s changing
  • The food hasn’t been entirely homogenized
  • People are active
  • A stranger will go out of his way for you, perhaps, and more often than you expect
  • There is more information per minute, per meter and per interaction
  • Neighborhoods are more important than homogeneity, and co-existing is most important

In ancient Greece the idea of the polis was, in large part, meant to provide a space where ideas could be exchanged between people (though, of course not all people at that time) with differing perspectives. The thinking was that if people had a public space where they could appear, speak, and listen then the frailty that exists in human relationships would become that much stronger. Conversation would bleed into other parts of city life and make the city stronger overall. The sociologist Robert Putnam proposed a similar theory about modern American city life in his book Bowling Alone.

The Greeks used a phrase, “Wherever you go, you will be a polis”meaning, in essence, you are the city. 

Many philosophers and writers have grappled with the question, “What makes a city”?  The philosopher Hannah Arendt (mid- 20th century) saw the polis as an absolutely necessary part of what it means to be human. Arendt’s ideas about the polis have fundamentally inspired and shaped the founding of this organization (and we plan to offer a class on Arendt in the future!).

“The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be” (Arendt, The Human Condition, 198)

Arendt believed that the polis is the space and time where people come together, in public, and participate in what she referred to as “acts of disclosure” through a sharing of ideas. The city, according to Arendt, requires the spontaneity and unpredictability that is found in authentic (and sometimes messy) conversation.

At Polis we aim to be just that: A space where the unpredictable in conversation is encouraged. A chance for people with different perspectives to meet and talk about texts and ideas in spontaneous ways. A community that will strengthen the city.

Let’s take a look at the cities where we live. Here are a few questions that I’ve been thinking about and that have been floating around in the media recently. I don’t have answers to these but want to give readers some Friday food for thought and articles to read about the essential question, “What Makes A City?” (by the way, another feature of a Polis class is that we begin each session with an open-ended question as a means of starting the discussion).

What do you think makes a city great?

Join as for a Polis class. Courses start next week and there is still time to register.

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