Members of the London Literary Salon in Dublin
Published: 10 January, 2013
by TOBY BROTHERS
WHY do we read? Reading is such a fundamental experience that we do not reflect on its importance in our intellectual and social lives… but an engaged reading experience shifts us out of our narrow world. A great book offers not just content but stretches the reader’s understanding of how language works – and deepens their understanding of humanity.
The books that challenge tend to be books that require some effort. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is not a book to cosy up with: the story is violent and uncomfortable from the start. Guiding readers through this book, I know the first response is discomfort and repulsion – who wants to be confronted with the very worst of human nature played out on an innocent young man?
But the writing carefully invokes the horror of the reader while situating us alongside the Invisible Man: we feel his humanity before outrage distances us. We then move with him into the deep complexities of racism and identity, but this requires patience and reflection.
Witnessing the breadth of readers’ responses to challenging literature has taught me that the best facilitation demands openness. Those moments when I glimpse a new idea or a different focus on a work of literature through another’s response has developed the model of the London Literary Salon.
To read is to connect, to step outside of the closeness of your own experience into the mind of another person because you are hungry to understand other human beings. Great literature offers us the opportunity to enter risky territory, understanding ourselves more profoundly as a result.
Reading with others, sharing your thoughts and testing them against other perspectives and the words on the page clarifies and expands the individual response to a great book.
A Salon member described the experience of reading with a group: M is a very bright, independent woman who has little time for soft-edged meanderings. The mother of five children and a visual artist, she rarely has felt compelled to seek the ideas of others to add to her own knowledge.
After doing several Salons, she said to me that she was finding herself holding the comments from others long after the discussions, and surprisingly, using these various perspectives to reconsider her own views. “It became clear to me when I was watching my son play with Lego,” she said. “When he tried to build a high tower, he initially used a single column and kept building until the column wavered and fell from lack of stability. Then he got smart: by widening the column and connecting it laterally to other pieces – using pieces perpendicular to the original tower and even building side towers of support that intersect the main tower – his tower grew larger and larger. The Salon is like that – by considering the ideas of others, my own perspective may become modified, but my ideas can grow larger.”
The book that best tests the ideal of the Salon is James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Ulysses is near the top of every “Greatest Books of all Time” list – but also tops the list of books people lie about actually having read. So why is it worth reading?
Joyce was engaging the limits of language to express what we truly think – at all levels, all the time. Ulysses uses all the tricks afforded by literary language – allusion, metaphor, sound, rhyme, style, word play, imagery – to understand the constant struggle for meaning between human beings.
So of course the work is difficult: the historical, philosophical, literary, musical, epistemological references can overwhelm... but there are ways through. Letting go of the constant need to understand, a reader can dip in, move forward; slowly, painstakingly and notice how the meaning accrues. The book teaches you to read it: with patience, diligence, humour and camaraderie.
The Salon supplies background materials to help enlighten each section and also uses the energy and questions of all participants to expand understanding. The atmosphere is inquisitive, supportive and playful.
Ulysses works to reveal the depth of human thought: how our memories, worries, histories, stories, environments, educations, prejudices, socialisations battle towards identity.
The book traces one day in Dublin in 1904, focusing on the life that radiates from the central character, Leopold Bloom. Though we enter into many other character’s thoughts, it is our wandering Jew, our organ-loving ad man, our cuckolded romantic who provides our bearings in this epic journey.
Joyce calls upon other great works that have engaged the mystery of man; these references are explained cooperatively in the Salon sessions.
For the new year, gift yourself the opportunity to focus and learn. Our lives are full of distraction; reading a book like Ulysses in the Salon allows a time of reflection. You are accompanied by fellow journeyers balancing the demands of the exterior world to be present, to be aware. Here is one route in.
• Toby Brothers is director of London Literary Salon. Studies sessions on Ullyses start on January 21, 1-3pm or 8-10pm, and end on June 11. Full details of the Salon and fees at www.litsalon.co.uk/