Those of us who have seen fliers for the Ashland library's Elastic Mind discussion group, but for whatever reason never made it to one, are now out of luck. The group's coordinator, Joanna Fenn, led the final meeting last week, and is moving on to new adventures.
The Elastic Mind series drew on books and articles to launch discussions on current-event topics, sometimes including a guest speaker. It began in 2006, when Fenn was volunteering at the library. Ashland branch manager Amy Blossom told her that patrons were asking for a serious book club, and Fenn jumped at the chance.
"I said, 'That's me. I can start one,' " Fenn recalls.
Over the years, she covered an array of often controversial subjects covering world politics, religion, gun control, mental health.
Fenn believes that book groups should be thought-provoking. "I love groups that really dive into the subject, and where people can share their ideas and opinions," she says. "We all learn so much more when there is that sort of engagement. So many book clubs are more social, where you end up just drinking wine and talking about children."
Fenn was born in Egypt and raised in Poland. She's traveled extensively and speaks several languages. The energetic 76-year-old came to the U.S. more than 20 years ago, and has lived in Ashland for 12 years.
"In European culture, sometimes there is intellectual snobbery, where everyone is talking and showing what they know, but in American culture, it is often the opposite, where sometimes people in this country are too shy to speak up about their thoughts," she says. "The good thing in Europe is that if you get with friends for dinner or something, you and your friends will talk about what you are reading and thinking. That's what I wanted in the group here."
At Elastic Mind events, Fenn created a relaxed atmosphere with her insight and warm sense of humor. She would spend weeks reading, researching and preparing for each meeting, then start the discussions with an engaging question or quote from the readings and let the conversation sparks fly. While Fenn did most of the heavy lifting to get the discussions going, she says the people in the group would give it life with their thoughts and commentary.
"Ashland is a wonderful place with such wonderful, smart people. Our conversations were always memorable," she says.
Fenn says that depending on the theme, the group would number anywhere from seven to 20 people. "When we had topics such as autism, stroke recovery, or the conflict between Israel and Palestine, we would have about 20 or more people. But if the topic was a little dry or not interesting to many people, we'd have only a few. Regardless of the number of people, the conversations were good."
This year for example, the group read "Hidden Reality" by physicist Brian Greene, who explores the possibility of multiple universes with multiple big bangs and multiple duplicates of every one of us.
Though the Elastic Mind series is no more, the library will be starting a new discussion group based on the popular TED talks broadcast online. Amy Blossom says she's working on getting something together this summer. "It takes a lot to follow Joanna Fenn," Blossom says.
Fenn says she is looking forward to having more free time. "I want to read mysteries, do crossword puzzles and spend time with my husband," she says. "But I will always have warm thoughts of the Elastic Mind discussions. I saw the list of all the topics we've covered and books we've read over the past seven years and I thought, 'Wow, this is something to be proud of.' "
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at email@example.com.