No Shush Zone asked Mr. Dickstein to share some of his thoughts and strategies in organizing his Disrupted Lives reading group held at Central Library. The third installment meets this Wednesday to discuss Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day.
No Shush Zone: How did you decide on the theme for your book discussion series?
Morris Dickstein: Fiction is very good at dramatizing the turning points in people's lives. I wanted to look closely at lives disrupted either by large historical events, such as the Depression or the Holocaust, or by serious personal problems, including depression, marital conflict, and economic reverses. One criterion was to find brief works, under 120 pages, that we could really cover in a two-hour discussion. The books I chose are as tightly written as poetry.
NSZ: Do you have a favorite book from your selections?
MD: Actually, they're all favorites of mine. That's why I singled them out.
NSZ: What do you find unique or interesting about fiction written between the 1930s and 1970s?
MD: Not only do the personalities change, especially after the war, but the cultural influences on them change from decade to decade. Economic problems before the war give way to moral and psychological problems after the war. But of course the Holocaust remains a unique event, something so extreme that no literary models could prepare a writer for dealing with it.
NSZ: Are there aspects to these five authors’ writing and/or lives that connect them to each other?
MD: Because of the theme of crisis or disruption, I was afraid the books are too similar to each other, despite having been written under different circumstances by very different people. In fact, I was worried that they might seem like all the same book. But the discussion so far shows how unlike they are, and that was something I wanted to stress--the variety of human response to crisis.
NSZ: Do you have a strategy for directing the conversation in a reading group?
MD: I try to offer background information and lay down questions rather than answers. My goal is to encourage the participants to talk to each other, not to me, and especially not to seek the answers from me. I want us to move further along in that direction. I hope to serve as a catalyst, low-key and almost invisible. We haven't gotten there yet but I'll keep trying.
So, seize the day, and join this week’s or one of the next two book discussions in the series!
May 5: Night by Elie Wiesel
May 26: The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth