Salons and Subversion Cherie Harder
Thursday, January 19, 2012

Each election year typically brings renewed salvos in the ongoing culture wars, and there is little reason to think that 2012 will prove an exception. But in the midst of all the sound and fury that surrounds such battles, it can be easy to overlook less truculent, if no less effective, means of cultural engagement.

Historically, one of the most powerful instigators of cultural change has been the small discussion group. In France, it was the Salon – small groups who would meet together to talk, gossip, read and discuss. In 18th Century England, it was the Clapham Group, who helped usher Britain from one of the most violent, oppressive, and debauched societies in history into the Victorian era. Today, perhaps the closest equivalent – as well as a gentle yet potent means of pushing back against harmful cultural norms – is the book club.

There are several reasons why a reading group – as modest and homespun as it may seem – is a subversive countercultural effort.

First, the act of hosting or participating in a reading group pushes against the growing cultural tendency towards isolated electronic interaction. So great has our addiction to entertainment media become that the average American now spends more time with electronic media than at work. A recent Nielson survey showed that the average American spent almost 33 hours watching “traditional” TV, and another two hours and 20 minutes watching “time-shifted” TV, almost four hours per week on the internet, and another half hour watching internet video. Crowded out from our lives by our reliance on TV and the internet are socializing and reading.

A reading group gently but firmly bucks this trend. It offers actual and personal interaction, rather than virtual. It is essentially interactive, rather than isolated. And it necessarily involves the practice of hospitality – of opening one’s home to others, preparing food, and breaking bread (or just drinking wine) together. By its nature, a reading group forms community, and knits together the participants into a network. And as sociologist James Davison Hunter has argued in his brilliant work To Change the World, “the key actor in history is not the individual genius but rather the network… and the more ‘dense’ the network – that is, the more active and interactive the network – the more influential it could be.”

Second, reading and discussion groups undermine the growing cultural tendency towards perpetual distraction. Recent Nielson reports indicate that the average American teenager sends or receives 3,339 text messages each month – or more than six per waking hour. Even for less tech-addled adults, the majority of one’s waking hours, whether in work and leisure, are generally spent multi-tasking, and juggling calls, texts, and emails. In contrast, a reading group demands focused attention and discussion. Participants focus on one thing at a time, generally speak one at a time, and are given space to reflect, contemplate and analyze.

This is not insignificant. There is growing evidence that the way we think about things affects the way we think – that submerging ourselves in distraction eventually leaves us not only unwilling, but unable to focus. The art, architecture, literature, entertainment, and public policies of a society unable to reflect, contemplate, or focus will look quite different from one that can.

Third, a reading group implicitly pushes back against a popular entertainment culture awash in triviality, and saturated in violence. If ratings wars drive the television and movie industries to attempt to grab eyeballs with an ever-increasing barrage of slayings, stabbings, sex scenes, and car chases, reading leaves the mind’s eye unassaulted and imagination free to envision the possibilities. It encourages the reader to focus not on the sensational, but to discern and appreciate what is best – most true, insightful, and compelling – in a story.

And in contrast to the well-documented impact of entertainment violence in desensitizing viewers to real-life tragedy, reading and discussing literature both requires and engenders empathy. As author Azar Nafisi beautifully put it in Reading Lolita in Tehran, a novel “is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of a novel.”

As modest as a reading group may seem, it can accomplish great purposes: by resisting the cultural tide pulling us towards isolation, distraction, and triviality, it also cultivates acts and attitudes of proactive cultural engagement. It requires the extension of hospitality,  the discipline of sustained attention, the cultivation of discernment and  empathy, and the practice of reflection.

No wonder so many revolutions were started in salons.




Cherie Harder