I am very excited for the opportunity to lead studies with the London Literary Salon and to be part of the Salon community. My wife Johanna and I relocated to England this past spring from Chicago, where I have been leading Salon-style Great Books discussions for the last two decades.

I’ve known of Toby’s wonderful work with the Salon for a couple years now, and when the opportunity to move to London came along for Johanna and me, one of the first items on my must-do list was to get in touch with Toby. I am very grateful to her for the warm welcome she has given me.

I am absolutely passionate about discussion-based learning. What happens in the Salon and in Great Books discussion groups is a very rare thing these days. The Salon is one of the few places I know of where we can have meaningful conversations about things that matter—about the big questions that confront us as we go through life, about love, duty, faith, justice, beauty, work, and death.

One of our chief challenges as human beings, I think, is to understand ourselves and the world into which we have been born. The desire to understand, in this broad sense, is what drives me as I lead a discussion. Each time we open a new book, we are confronted with something unknown. It makes sense to me that we shouldn’t immediately understand much of what’s going on; after all, not knowing is the place from which we all naturally start. So, in our discussions we work together to try to make sense of the story or the ideas an author has put before us. We ask what kind of work this is, what is the author trying to say and why does the author say it in this manner; we look at our experience and reactions as we read; we fit in this author’s ideas with what other writers and artists have said and shown; and, ultimately, we ask ourselves how this work fits with and enhances our own understanding of the world.

Building answers to these questions is often difficult going. Many, if not most of the books we study in the Salon are quite challenging, both intellectually and emotionally. Again and again, though, I have been amazed at the insights made by participants in group discussion.

A friend in the US who trains teachers to lead discussions recently sent along a link to an article in the Utne Reader that captures what is so special about good discussions:

“. . . (M)ost people have ideas that matter, ideas that would make a difference if they could be developed fully. People, regardless of their position or status, can think of things that move discussions to whole new levels of sparkle and resolution. Individuals you would never suspect of being interesting have absorbing stories to tell and disturbing insights that would humble even the most long-winded of us right out of our self-importance and rush. If the conditions are right, the huge intelligence of the human being surfaces. Ideas seem to come from nowhere and sometimes stun us. 

“The best conditions for thinking, I assumed for years, were hypercritical, competitive and urgent. Schools, organizations, governments and families convince us of that. But in fact it is in schools, organizations, governments and families that people do some of their worst thinking. That is because the conditions for thinking there are usually appalling. 

“The best conditions for thinking, if you really stop and notice, are not tense. They are gentle. They are quiet. They are unrushed. They are stimulating but not competitive. They are encouraging. They are paradoxically both rigorous and nimble.” 

I know that Toby creates those best conditions, and they are what I strive to create in discussion, as well.

I will be starting off at the Salon with a couple of short studies this fall: a two-session Hamlet study and a Plato taster (keep an eye out for that). I’ll also be co-facilitating a section of the Daniel Deronda study with Toby.

I look forward to meeting more members of the Salon community, and I welcome your suggestions for other studies we might add. Is anyone interested in any of my favorites: Homer’s Iliad, perhaps, or some Darwin? Or maybe Herodotus, the Greek tragedies, or the great Icelandic novelist Halldor Laxness’ masterpiece Independent People?