John and the Nutcrackers

On Dec. 22, the Daily News ran an obituary for John Thomas Brewer (b. 1938), longtime faculty member in German at Washington State University. I was fortunate to know John through a reading group called the Nutcrackers. His passing caused me to reflect on that group.

The Nutcrackers was founded in 1932 by 12 WSU faculty, all men, and continued to meet for 70 years until it disbanded in the early 2000s. The remit was simple. Every other year one person would review for the group some book that he had recently read, and every other year a different member would host all the others for one of these reviews. Unlike most reading groups there was no expectation that anyone else would read that book. We met about eight times a year, taking the summers off.

There were no rules, but there were traditions. The book to be reviewed was almost always nonfiction. Reviews were leisurely, often interrupted by questions or comments. Wide-ranging discussion followed, accompanied by a dessert typically prepared by a spouse who would make a brief appearance to receive thanks and congratulations. Invariably the eponymous bowl of nuts would be circulated. The group tried to have no more than one member from any department. When I was invited to join in 1991, I discovered that it was a good way to get to know faculty in parts of the university distant from my own.

The Nutcrackers may have been loosely modeled after the Pullman Fortnightly Club, a women’s literary society founded in 1893 by Mrs. Harriet E. Bryan. They, however, are still going strong after more than 125 years.

When I think back on the Nutcrackers, and on John Brewer himself, it seems that the world has lost something precious as these informal volitional groups fade away (see Robert D. Putnam’s famous book from 2000, “Bowling Alone”). The Nutcrackers provided an opportunity to practice civility. We typically wore jackets and ties. We treated each other with friendship and respect. These remain good to practice. Goodbye John, you are missed.

Tim KohlerPullman

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