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The Free Speech Movement’s passionate readers

Thomas C. Leonard, emeritus journalism professor and University Librarian emeritus | September 22, 2014

“Passionate readers” is not the tag line today for the people swept up in the Free Speech Movement, but it fits just as well as other efforts to sum them up. Thanks to the archives that the Library has built, serious students of the FSM know this.

Margot Adler, a familiar voice on National Public Radio until her death this summer, read Thucydides while sitting in at Sproul Hall in 1964. The four hundred pages that she was expected to read for class over an earlier weekend would scare Freshmen this fall. As Adler looked back at Cal, readers had as much stature as the orators:

While politics bid for my soul, another model, totally at war with the active political life, also beckoned. . . .  He would sit in his home, surrounded by walls of books, contentedly poring over ancient Greek texts, while his wife sat at her desk quietly studying Anglo-Saxon. I wondered if they were outside the main energy of our era or if they were investigating the only questions anyone would find interesting a hundred or a thousand years from now.

Adler was in step with FSM’s charismatic leader, Mario Savio. He came to Berkeley well read in the classics and later reflected, “there’ve been no plays written superior to the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus and Euripides. We haven’t had better philosophers.”

FSM was not a book club, but it appealed to passionate readers who had immediate and sometimes lasting impact on our culture. Country Joe McDonald, soon to be famous beyond Telegraph Avenue, for uniting folk rock with Vietnam war protests, was in thrall to a Victorian biography of nurse Florence Nightingale.  Classics major David Lance Goines, later famous for his posters, worked in the Library until FSM took over his life. Tom Luddy of the Pacific Film Archive and Alice Waters of Chez Panisse were deeply read as they found their way from FSM gatherings to the film festivals and  cuisines they are celebrated for today.

If not a book club, FSM stood for a club of deep divers into the culture they wished to change and did change.

More Berkeley Berkeley posts on the Free Speech Movement may be found here.

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