Summer reading

Listen Like a Lawyer now has two candidates for a (hypothetical) Very Challenging Book Club: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, previously discussed here; and Zia Haider Rahman‘s In the Light of What We Know (2014). I chose Rahman’s novel for a reading challenge this summer and have not been disappointed — although I’m not quite finished with it.

The main characters are a former lawyer and a soon-to-be-former investment banker who is looking like the fall guy, perhaps deservedly, for his firm’s involvement with bad derivatives trading. This is a gross oversimplification, but as the New York Times book review stated, the book is so big in length and scope that it defies summary. The rewards, however, are great, such as this passage — and here we finally come to the topic of listening.

It’s page 268. The narrator has just told his father, an Oxford-educated Princeton physicist, about the narrator’s likely fall from grace in investment banking:

When I got to telling him that I thought the firm was about to let me go and would possibly even try to hang me out to dry, my father did not make reassuring sounds, did not contradict me with the groundless optimism of someone reassuring himself as much as another–that was never his way. He simply listened. (Some years ago, he explained to me his belief that that kind of hollow consolation was disrespectful because it presumed that the person being consoled wouldn’t see or care about the absence of reason. The thing to first and foremost, he believed, was not to talk but to listen, and listening, like anything difficult, is easier said than done.) I talked for some time, finding more and more details to tell him. Even things I hadn’t consciously thought much about I brought up, understanding then how much they had actually been weighing on my mind.

The scene goes on to weave in a few more listening lessons, such as the father’s perception of what has not been said — namely anything about the narrator’s wife. “My omission must have been as obvious to him as it now was to me.”

At a turning point in the conversation, the father also moves his chair to sit at a right angle to the narrator: “It was how my mother liked to sit. There was something less confrontational this way, she’d said. This way you see the person’s good side.”

So this scene occurs about halfway through the book. I have more than 200 pages to go, in which some kind of big betrayal is apparently going to be revealed, along with a disenchanting look (already foreshadowed) at NGO activities in Afghanistan.

At times I have been tempted to take a break from this book. It is amazing, but it is also taxing my focus and persistence. And now I can say it was a success because it produced a blog post. Yet something I read in the Chronicle of Higher Education is motivating me to persevere. Erik Shonstrom is a rhetoric professor grappling with the idea that reading ambitious novels teaches critical thinking. His essay is great for any readers of this blog who may be encouraging their children to read by telling the children how good it is for their brains, something like an intellectual green smoothie. Shonstrom says yes, fine, tell yourself that big novels help with critical thinking, but that’s actually not the payoff:

The payoff for me — and what I secretly hope for my students — is something else. Yes, I want them to develop critical faculties for decoding the world, but what I’m really after in teaching the novel is the insight to develop meaning through their experiences. I want them to notice what they notice, both in the word and — more important — within themselves. Reading novels, I believe, acutely calibrates these internal receptors. Readers are able to hear the voice in their head more clearly. . . . When reading a long novel, we start to pay attention to that running line of commentary in our heads because we’re hopelessly bored. For me, the situation is similar to long hikes in the mountains. There’s no structure or “entertainment,” and we’re left with nothing but our own thoughts, which get amplified by the lack of distraction.

So I will finish In the Light of What We Know. There probably won’t be another lesson in listening dynamics, but there is sure to be more on mathematics, physics, cognitive science, South Asian history, and international relations, not to mention some painful romantic breakups. If analysis and contemplation stand in opposition to one another as Shonstrom writes (quoting Sven Birkerts in The American Scholar) then we can ask another question: where does listening stand, closer to analysis or closer to contemplation? For this we could fall back on our legal education: It depends.

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