conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

“Just Exactly What Are You Up To?”

with 5 comments

Then ask: “What is your point?”

We ask this of each other constantly: “What’s your point?”

We also ask it of poems and movies and op-ed pieces and windy monologues and sermons and sacred texts and profane screeching. Is this desire to quickly get to the nub a peculiarly American trait?


Or maybe it’s just a sign of these fast-paced, self-important times. Unfortunately, the question allows little room for dilly-dallying with ambiguity or gray.

Because we got stuff to do.

We want the point. And we want it now. So we can reject it. Or, possibly we’ll agree (but with provisos. Naturally).

Authors and friends who take time to really get to know a subject or to get to know another person’s thought are great counterweights to this tendency. Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book comes to mind, with his intense working-over of a text so as to master it. This is the opposite of reducing this to that. And I’m lucky enough to have people in my life who listen carefully without reducing. I’m trying to learn from them to do the same

I’ve just begun a book by Joseph Harris, Rewriting: how to do things with texts (Utah State University Press, 2006). Mr. Harris’ book has lots of wise and useful things to say about how to handle other people’s thoughts in ways that allows you to hear them, while allowing room for moving the topic forward. He advocates a generous approach with a text: trying to understand. The generous approach to another person’s thought reminds me of Wayne Booth’s notion of listening-rhetoric: looking for similarity of thought before blindly reducing and striking back with counter-arguments.

“Pursuing truth behind our differences,” is how Dr. Booth would say it.

One thought Mr. Harris puts forward is that rather than forcing a text to get to the point, it might make better sense to ask, “What is the author’s project?” This question is about the intention behind the text. What was this poem/movie/op-ed/monologue/sermon/text trying to accomplish? Why did [whomever] write it and what did they hope to persuade the reader of? After you guess at that you stand a better chance of understanding their point (if there is one point). And this is particularly helpful when an author is presenting multiple points—like in the back and forth of a conversation, when someone is trying an idea on for size. This appeals to me because I’ve sat through too many meetings and preachments where the speaker’s point was forced out of a text that had zero to say about the topic. I have also been guilty of this violent approach to a text.

I like the notion of being generous with the texts we read and the conversations in our lives.

I am also persuaded we are all in the business of persuading each other all the time. We all have projects.

Image Credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

April 2, 2014 at 9:34 am

5 Responses

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  1. I’m a poor listener and I rarely ponder the meaning of anything. Seriously, your posts have nudged me in the right direction. More frequently, I’m telling myself to shut up and listen. It’s a good thing 😉


    April 2, 2014 at 9:46 am

    • DirOfPr: Thanks for your kind comments. And thanks for reading and commenting, Wendi.


      April 2, 2014 at 10:55 am

  2. Kirk,

    I’m glad you stumbled upon my book! You restate my own project with accuracy and eloquence. I particularly like your phrasing about “to handle other people’s thoughts in ways that allows you to hear them, while allowing room for moving the topic forward.” A number of other writing teachers—I’m thinking of Krista Ratcliffe and Cheryl Glenn—have also thought about something like a “rhetoric of listening.” You might be interested in their work. And it is certainly flattering to have my name listed along with Adler and Booth!

    I’ll try to look into your blog from time to time. Thanks again for this post,

    Joe Harris

    Joe Harris

    April 2, 2014 at 10:28 am

    • Joe–thanks for stopping by! Your book is really provoking me and is just the fodder I need to move forward with my own projects. I may even, well, buy it! I will certainly use it as I teach. Thank you for thinking through this topic and expressing it so well.


      April 2, 2014 at 11:03 am

  3. Hello,
    We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery—three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.
    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.
    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.
    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:
    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8
    Thank you,
    Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler

    Max Weismann

    April 2, 2014 at 1:53 pm

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