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Readers thrill to challenge of weighty tomes

In Tampa, Tony Moore feels like a rare duck.

He has bachelor's degree in psychology and philosophy, a master's degree in psychology and a doctorate on top of that. He reads at least one book a week, and 20 years ago he unplugged his television for good.

When he went to find others like him, his search took more than a month.

Finally, he has found some company, the Academically Inclined Reading Group in Carrollwood. The group meets at the Barnes & Noble on N Dale Mabry Highway to discuss books about philosophy, science, religion, history and other subjects.

"This is not your normal New York Times bestseller list by any stretch," said Jim Scilligo, community relations manager at Barnes & Noble, which sponsors the group and sells books to members. "These are some thought-provoking, deep books."

Some recent selections:

Guns, Germs & Steel, a 427-page tract by physiology professor Jared Diamond on the history of human societies. Also, The Symbolic Species, a 464-page book on the development of language by evolutionary anthropologist Terrance Deacon.

Finding others who want to read 400-page books and then meet on Sunday night to discuss them can be very hard, said Moore. According to one survey, Tampa ranks the lowest among major U.S. cities in percentage of residents with four-year college degrees.

"You have to work at it," said Moore, a clinical psychologist. "You don't have to work at it if you like sports."

But there is no college degree or IQ test required to join the academically inclined crowd. The group seeks people who like to learn and are willing to read serious books, said Charlie Palmer, who organized the meetings in July to inject more intellectual stimulation into his life.

"Some people actually enjoy learning," said Palmer, a car dealer with a master's degree in history. "When you get out of college, generally the learning stops."

On a recent Sunday, around a green tablecloth at the back of Barnes & Noble, there were enough academic credentials to make up a small college department. The group included readers such as Beth Tockman, a lawyer with a degree from the University of Chicago and a bachelor's degree in international relations from American University.

Tockman, who lives in Tampa Palms, reads two novels and one non-fiction book a month, she said. On a recent trip to Ireland, she devoured James Joyce's Dubliners and Jane Smiley's The Greenlanders.

Her colleagues at a recent meeting sounded less like scholars and more like shouting heads on TV's McLaughlin Group. They traded rapid fire comments. They referred repeatedly to a poster board that had been filled with outlines and maps. They traded obscure references to works by scientists Stephen Hawkings and Stephen Jay Gould.

"Science is a way of knowing the world," said Palmer, defending Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. No, said Ron Aronica, another group member, as he shook his head.

"Science is a way of explaining nature, not knowing nature."

"Can you allow me to define my terms?" Palmer shot back.

While they argue a lot, many in the group are also friends. Before Sunday's meeting, Palmer and Aronica shared dinner. Four women in the group vacationed together in Key West.

And though those in the group read a lot, not everyone can finish every book for each meeting. At Sunday's meeting, three in five had not finished all of Guns, Germs & Steel.

"It's not easy," said Scott Schneider, who usually reads a 300-page book a week, but hadn't started Sunday's selection.

If you go

To join the Academically Inclined Reading Group come to the next meeting Sunday at Barnes & Noble in Carrollwood at 11802 N Dale Mabry Highway. If you have questions, call organizer Charlie Palmer at 914-0009. The group plans to discuss:

Sunday - Frames of Mind by Howard Gardner

Nov. 23 - When God Was a Woman by Merlin Stone

Dec. 7 - Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould