Teaching and learning should be an opportunity for great generosity – not an intellectual pissing contest.
With that in mind, what then is a literary “salon”? The answer is actually quite simple: it’s an informal study of a particular work of literature, either as a single intensive session or longer weekly series of meetings. Some even describe the experience as “a spa for the mind”. But mostly it’s where we laugh, express our frustrations, query meaning and purpose, and discover great depth in the language and vision of the writer.
My London Literary Salon actually started in Paris, back in 2004, where my partner and I had moved rather abruptly from California. I found myself at a loose end: after working as a mentor teacher and counsellor and unable to find a job teaching in the French system, I was meeting other English-speaking adults who, while loving la vie Parisien, were looking for further intellectual stimulation.
After a particularly heady party, the idea of the salon burst forward. I ran my first study in our apartment with a group of eight women on Beloved by Toni Morrison, a wrenching, complex book with a multi-level narrative. At the end of our five-week study, everyone said, “What’s next?” And so the salon began.
We moved here in 2008. Now based on Falkland Road in Kentish Town, I hope the salon brings to the surface the deepest questions about who we are — and without offering answers, help us understand life’s mysteries. What, for example, does it mean to be human, in different times or different skin, various genders and a spectrum of struggles?
I believe — with the passion of a southern minister that is part of my inheritance — that the best learning is not hierarchical but shared discovery. But a teacher or facilitator can only guide; in a room full of learners you have a vast array of experiences and world views, all of which can enrich the learning experience. This is the basis of the salon: adults that join may be highly educated or not, but all have ideas and insights that expand our study.
We can also discuss issues that are harder to bring up in casual conversation. Take racism and identity, for example: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man gives us an (apparently) objective platform to get inside the skin of one who is positioned as other – and glimpse how the world looks from there.
Then there is the writing: to grapple with the linguistic pyrotechnics of James Joyce — to enter into his exploration of the body, mind and street-life, to sit in awe of his allusions, musicality and thematic developments – is to expand the possibilities of the written word. To do this with a group of other curious readers who are also struggling allows each to enrich their own understanding many fold.
As facilitator I offer historical context, a biography of the writer, literary criticism, and other areas that the literature engages: the workhouses and debtors prisons of Dickens’ time, for example, or breakdown of Southern aristocracy in Faulkner’s world. The fees are for the physical and metaphorical space provided, the background and discussion notes and the atmosphere of flexibility combined with clear purpose and direction. It is also my responsibility to ensure a balance in the discussion and I do redirect when necessary. I try to keep the salons affordable to encourage a diverse group of participants.
But most of all? I celebrate the variety of participants who choose the Salon: I have seen friendships and relationships grow, and people come to a greater understanding of themselves and others. Reading literature does not need to be an isolating experience: through the salon and other local, grassroots book clubs (MeetUp, for example), there are authentic communities forming from the energy we have for the pure exploration of ideas — and how that connects us deeply.