GUEST BLOG — Why We Discuss?

Gary Schoepfel at Toronto Pursuits, 2014

Gary Schoepfel at Toronto Pursuits, 2014

I’ve spent the better part of my professional life encouraging people to talk about books, and not just any books, great books. It turns out that these great books are often times difficult books too. Occasionally I get the prickly questions: Why would a bunch of equally ignorant people even bother trying to make sense of a difficult book without an expert to tell them what it means? Why would I want to listen to folks who know as little about the book as I do and are as likely to talk about their personal lives as the reading?

Over the years, I have tried to address this honest concern a hundred ways.

Although there is an ounce of truth in all the explanations about the importance of the process, the power of dialectic, the rewards of cooperative discovery, the delight in unexpected interpretations, etc., I do not find them completely satisfying. They are not thoroughly convincing.

A few friends of mine will testify that a pint of Guinness can prompt me to inquire about the meaning of four very ordinary words: information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. I ask folks to explain what they have possession of when their mind has possession of each of those things. What are they and how is each different from the others? They always start off strong with a clear and confident explanation of information and the observation that there appears to be a hierarchy among the four. However, they tend to slow down when explaining knowledge and they nearly grind to a halt when they come to the distinction between knowledge and understanding. Wisdom leaves them babbling more times than not.

It is the third word, understanding, that is the foundation for my thinking about why I discuss books with others. I wish to understand them. There is a vast difference between having knowledge about a book and having an understanding of a book’s meaning. The former can be given. You can be taught about the book. Here an expert can deliver. Understanding cannot be delivered. An expert can assist the process, but they cannot give you understanding. That must be acquired. One can passively gather information about a book. One can only actively make meaning. Making personal meaning of a great book requires much of the reader. Virginia Woolf claims that “they bend us and break” and that they “often require us to make heroic efforts in order to read them rightly.” The active pursuit of meaning requires us to test our ideas. Discussion is one of the best ways I know to test my ideas about the meaning of a book. Montaigne also found great value in the crucible of discussion.

“The most fruitful and natural exercise of our mind, in my opinion, is discussion. I find it sweeter that any other action of our life…The study of books is a languishing and feeble activity that gives no heat, whereas discussion teaches and exercises us at the same time. If I discuss with a strong mind and a stiff jouster, he presses on my flanks, prods me right and left; his ideas launch mine.”

There is an important distinction to be drawn between knowledge about a book and the personal meaning that comes with understanding. Knowledge about a book includes the book and all that has been said about it by scholars and critics. Too often this is what readers call understanding. One does not own or understand a book if all they have in their possession is what others have said about it. Personal meaning is at least one step beyond that.

I offer a personal example using Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. I have read it many times more than the 45+ years it has rested on my library shelf. Having performed in it, studied it at university, read it for enjoyment, and led it in discussion, one would think that I had a pretty good handle on that melancholy Dane. And I did have a good handle on the facts, the history, and the criticism. But no matter how often I read the text, one problem of meaning always bubbled to the surface. Why the hell was mother Gertrude’s marriage to Uncle Claudius such a big deal for son Hamlet? I know that the marriage was quick and that “The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” But, for years I asked Hamlet just as Claudius asked Hamlet, “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” Then my stepmother remarried. She was young, in her sexual prime. Dad was three years dead. She was my stepmother and not my mom. The funeral meats were long gone. I was middle aged, well educated, and, I thought, emotionally mature. Why then my anger? Why the sense of being some how wronged? Why my resentment at that “new guy” in our family? I knew none of my feelings made sense. I was embarrassed by my own reactions. But I could not deny them. They filled my heart. They filled my head. I could not rid myself of their effect. It was during a discussion of Hamlet when a participant pointed out the emotional and irrational parts of Hamlet’s makeup that I came to understand, in a way that no expert could ever impart, the depth and nature of Hamlet’s anguish. In that discussion, I took personal possession of Hamlet. That play means for me in a way that few other works can ever approach.

This is what I understand personal meaning of a book to be. I don’t always reach it, but I always strive to understand a book or, for that matter, any art of art on that level. Discussion with other thoughtful people is the best approach I know for making personal meaning. I think that all the great artists would prefer a personal understanding of their work over a thorough mastery of knowledge about their work.

What I have described above I cannot do alone. Without other minds to test my ideas, I have no way of confirming or challenging my thinking. However, I also recognize that the discussion process has its limits and dangers. Although a book can mean many things, it cannot mean everything, and a book should not be unnaturally forced to mean whatever the reader wants it to mean. This is where good discussion leaders and thoughtful and disciplined participants play a vital role. There are two essential rules for discussion at Classical Pursuits. The first is that when interpretations are offered up they need to be supported with evidence from the text. This does not prove interpretations, but it does allow participants to discriminate among the different possibilities. It helps each participant weigh opinions and make up their mind about which interpretations are valid and to what degree of certitude. These discussions are not idle uninformed chats about a book. They are disciplined and rigorous while being inviting and tolerant of differing points of view.

The concern about the discussion degenerating into talk about the discussants rather than about the subject is a well founded. Too often the social aspects of the gathering become an end in itself. The book becomes secondary. This is fine for those who want it. But for those who don’t, it is painfully frustrating. The second rule for Classical Pursuits discussion states that the discussion is restricted to the selection that everyone has read. Here too a quality leader and group are critical to the success of the discussion. The focus is the book. The leaders and participants must insist that the discussion be about the meaning of the text. Participants are kept “in the text” through the skillful use of follow-up questions.

It is true that the skills of the leaders and the participants vary, and that “wrong turns” are sometimes taken. There is no doubt that some discussions are more satisfying than others, and that they frequently don’t “cover it all.” But with whatever short comings this process may have, I don’t know of a more effective way to get the help I need in making personal meaning of a difficult text. Alone I lack the help of other minds. With the expert, I am in danger of upstaging my own thinking. Here again Woolf gives the reader advice.

“Not much help can be looked for from the outside. Critics and criticism abound, but it does not help us greatly to read [or hear] the views of another mind when our own is still hot from a book that we have just read. It is after one has made up one’s own opinion that the opinions of others are most illuminating. It is when we can defend our own judgment that we get most from the judgment of the great critics—the Johnsons, the Drydens, and the Arnolds.”

I close with my most personal reason for gathering ‘round the table for a couple hours to discuss the very best that has been thought and said. Wondering together is great fun!

Gary Schoepfel


1. From “The Love of Reading” by Virginia Woolf

2. From “The Art of Conversing” by Michel de Montaigne

3. From “The Love of Reading” by Virginia Woolf






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