Using a Book to Build Community

Door County Reads, and its national counterpart the Big Read, is a month-long series of events designed to bring a community together in celebration of reading and literature. Now entering its 10th year in Door County, this year’s effort was launched with a Kick-Off Celebration at the Door Community Auditorium on Jan. 23. I was honored to have the opportunity to offer a few comments at the opening event.

This year’s novel is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls by Richard Russo. It has been suggested that Russo uses the human condition of these struggling Maine residents to tell the story of failing mill towns everywhere in our country. While I certainly appreciate that perspective, I could not help but interpret Russo’s book as a cautionary tale about community.

Russo’s protagonist is Miles Roby, the manager of Empire Grill, a local greasy spoon diner. Miles’ tragic flaw, according to his ex-wife, is that he never says anything. Indeed, Russo gives us numerous scenes of Miles’ avoiding real human conversation by steering the talk to neutral subjects or simply ignoring uncomfortable topics altogether. In fact, the most enlightening conversations in the novel, the ones in which Miles truly begins to understand the events of his life – those conversations only occur in his imagination.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams gave a fascinating series of lectures at Harvard in 2014 titled “The Paradoxes of Empathy.” For Bishop Williams, empathy does not begin with “I know how you feel.” Rather, it is rooted in the realization that you don’t know how another feels. It’s in recognition of our own ignorance, married with the desire to make a human connection, that we extend the offer of a conversation. “Tell me how you feel.”

Having a face-to-face conversation is the most human thing we do. For it’s when we are fully present with one another, not just physically, but also intellectually and emotionally, that we develop and use our capacity for empathy. To have a conversation is to imagine another mind as we experience an idea from a perspective that is not our own. This is the core of empathy and it’s why conversation is the essential ingredient to building a healthy community.

This is also the central theme of Reclaiming Conversation, a book that came out last year from the clinical psychologist and renowned MIT professor Sherry Turkle. She argues that many of the things we struggle with in love and work, in our society and our country, can all be improved with conversation. Turkle demonstrates that without conversation, we are less creative, less fulfilled, less empathetic and less connected. Without conversation, we are less of a community.

As Russo’s character Miles demonstrates, it’s always been possible to avoid uncomfortable conversations. Turkle notes, however, that the advent of the iPhone, text messaging, and the rise of social media, has allowed us to hide from each other even as we are constantly connected to one another online.

Turkle writes that we haven’t stopped talking, but we opt out, often unconsciously, of the kind of conversation that requires our full attention. Every time you check your phone in the company of others, what you gain is a hit of stimulation, but what you lose is that which another person thinks and feels and was trying to share with you.

It all adds up to a flight from conversation in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. Yet these are the very conversations where empathy and intimacy flourish and our ability to come together as a community takes root. Turkle reminds us that conversations of discovery, conversations in which people really get to know each other, can be uncomfortable and usually are not polished at all.

We humans often contradict ourselves and have conflicting thoughts. Our impulses sometimes pull us in diametrically opposed directions. In creative conversations we often stumble along as we grapple with an idea or perspective that is new to us. We struggle to find the words that truly articulate what we mean.

Yet it is through this flawed face-to-face conversation that we reveal ourselves and build trust. We realize that we don’t need to be perfect in everything we say and do. The two sides of our brain are not always in harmony with each other so there is nothing to fear if a little disharmony exists between two people.

Life isn’t polished or clean. Life is messy.

Yet I continue to have faith because of events like Door County Reads. Door County Reads, and the Big Read before it, is ostensibly about a community sharing in the joy of a good book. I think we’ve got it backward.

I believe that because of Door County Reads, we are being given the opportunity to use a book to share in the joy of a good community.

We who live on this peninsula literally reside at the end of the road. You don’t drive up Highway 42 or 57 with another destination in mind. If you’re coming up our road, it’s because you’ve chosen to be here with us.

In this wonderful place, we have created a real community. But it’s not a birthright. Like a garden, our community is something to which we must tend and nurture. It requires that we be present with one another as we share the sunshine of our smiles. Sometimes we will weep together in the rain. And every now and then, our community might even need a little weeding.

Use this occasion of Door County Reads to have a conversation. Introduce yourself to someone you don’t know. Have a conversation with another whom you don’t know very well.

Empire Falls is about our community. Not because this story is our story, but because we can use this story to start a new conversation with each other.

Ours is a real community. Attend to it. Nurture it. Cherish it.

This column by Bret Bicoy originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse on February 3, 2017.

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