New Magazine Delivers Big Ideas

Dalia Sofer
From the January/February 2002 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

The Great Books Foundation, which for more than 50 years has been reminding the public that a book replete with sophisticated ideas and a "good read" are not mutually exclusive, has brought that same philosophy to a new magazine. The Common Review aims to deliver the riches of intellectual engagement to a general reading audience.

"The idea is to bring the sublime, that which is awesome and great, out of the academy and into the marketplace—out of the ivory tower and into the town square," says the magazine's editor, Daniel Born. He hopes the magazine will serve as a forum for cultural, political, and ideological dialogue, and intends to attract as its writers new and recognized public intellectuals. "We want to bring together people who are serious about ideas," he says.

The first issue of The Common Review, published in September, was distributed to 20,000 librarians, academics, and journalists, and included articles on the plight of East European writers after the Cold War, the African-American mystery writer Chester Himes, the relationship between education and incarceration, the largest-ever retrospective on William Blake (at the Tate Gallery in London), and Cambodian war criminals looking for a good hotel in Phnom Penh. While the magazine also features original poetry and reviews of fiction and nonfiction books, it does not purport to be just another literary publication.

"We don't intend to be a small, niche magazine," says Born. "We want to be a public forum for intellectual work that's neither totally academic nor totally popular. We hope to establish ourselves as a leading source of quality writing in the American marketplace."

The Common Review is published by the Great Books Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization founded in 1947 "to provide people of all ages with the opportunity to read, discuss, and learn from outstanding works of literature." Today, Born says, Great Books supports between 700 and 1,000 reading and discussion groups, training teachers and discussion leaders in a method called "shared inquiry," whereby a group leader who isn't an expert on a book launches the discussion with a basic question and monitors it with follow-up questions.

The foundation also publishes literary and philosophical anthologies specifically designed for discussion groups. Among these are theme-based collections such as Love and Marriage, which includes the writings of Gwendolyn Brooks, Yukio Mishima, Sylvia Plath, and Isaac Bashevis Singer; Living With the Past, which presents pieces by Annie Dillard, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, and Adrienne Rich; and Identity and Self-Respect, which offers works by Anton Chekhov, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Ellison, and Alice Munro.

To further support readers, the foundation is producing a series of guides to classic American novels (the first of which is F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby) and is teaming up with Penguin Books to provide online discussion guides for selected Penguin titles, beginning this year. The first selections for this collaboration include John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and Don DeLillo's Libra. Anthologies and reading guides for children and adolescents are also available.

Another branch of the foundation focuses on weekend and weeklong retreats at which readers come together to discuss specific books or topics. Born believes the foundation's work is parti- cularly relevant in today's tumultuous political climate. "A new seriousness seems to have emerged," he says. "War seems to make people think."

Future issues of The Common Review will feature articles on the birth of the Hollywood novel, how the academy has demonized corporate America, the feud between journalists and public intellectuals, and fashion in the classroom. "We won't hesitate to challenge hardened orthodoxies on both the left and the right," Born says.

For more information about The Common Review, write to Great Books Foundation, 35 E. Wacker Drive, Suite 2300, Chicago, IL 60601; or visit the Web site at

Dalia Sofer is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.