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Dialogue: Paradise by Toni Morrison
This weekend my partner and I had our second and last dialogue, what I think of as a “Learning Experience,” about Toni Morrison’s Paradise. Ms. Morrison published this book in 1997 and it is considered the last part of a trilogy (Beloved, Jazz), similar in structure to Dante’s Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso). After learning of the parallel and reading the three books, I’ve been fascinated by the contrast between the two trilogies and wondered why Toni Morrison is evoking Dante. That said, the second two of the series (Jazz, Paradise) I read without digesting out loud with someone else so I never got a chance to really explore nor understand what Ms. Morrison is really doing with these amazing three books she’s written.
The Anatomy of our Little Learning Experience
First off, we needed a place. We had a gift card to a lovely place in the West Village that’s served me well for conversations like this, The Spaniard, so we met there to enjoy a little brunchy ambience for the dialogue. The key I’ve found with places like this is that, while they do have a nice ambience, you’re not the only people who think and feel that. So you have to shoot for a time, I usually try right after they first open, when they’re not busy yet. Otherwise it’s hard to really converse and dive deep.
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Second off, we needed a book! I’d been wanting to plan a learning experience like this with her for ages because I’ve gone off and had dialogues and book clubs with friends for years but we’d never done it together. We picked Toni Morrison because I knew we’d have lots of complexity to wade through because her novels are almost impossible to understand at first glance (for me at least). We picked Paradise because Salwa had been trying to finish it for a while and what better way to get through a book than having an accountability buddy and a deadline (we wanted to both have finished the book to be on the literal same page for our discussion).
When I think of these book dialogues as learning experiences I think of them as one does a “user” experience, or how a designer intentionally curates the experience of someone using software or hardware they’re creating. How do I design these experiences? I will dive into that in another post. Stay tuned. Suffice it to say here, I think of the physical surroundings on one level and the experience of the conversation on another level. Both are key to having a great learning experience. An illuminating a ha moment in beautiful surroundings. That’s the aim.
A Book Dialogue as a Learning Experience
So here’s the thing. I just don’t get books like this. I’m OK with that fact, but, really, I just don’t. Let’s say I wanted to though. Let’s say, I respected Ms. Morrison, and loved her writing, and just found myself really deeply curious about what she’s intending to communicate to her readers in Paradise. I think I have a couple different options for satisfying this curiosity.
Read about Paradise on Wikipedia or pick up a copy of its Cliff Notes if one exists
Grab some book club/discussion group questions and write out my responses
Sit down with someone else who’s read the book and begin with a question that fascinates me most (in this case, Why on earth does she title the book “Paradise?” Where is there a “paradise” depicted in the book? Is she being ironic?)
Can you think of other options? Please do share in the comments if you do. I think this list and what might work for you might depend on your learning style.
I suppose one more is, I could just think about it I suppose. But I’m really not great at thinking in isolation.
Of the options above, the first option is not my favorite because I’m just outsourcing my thinking to someone else. There’s a time and a place for this sort of thing, but for me, I think we miss the opportunity for some great mind exercise to strengthen our thinking for ourselves muscles. I also think it can be fun to try to put the puzzle together yourself. Would you purchase a puzzle already put together? Why do that with books like this?
The second option is good. I’ve done this when I’ve done solo reading retreats. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with how much thinking I’ve done in this way and how much more I understand the book if I do so. That said, where it falls flat for me is I like the social aspect. I only get my own thoughts. I love hearing others’ thoughts and reactions. They make mine better. They mix with mine and turn into something new. Usually something insightful.
The last option is obviously what I choose when I can. I get to think for myself, assuming the group is small enough to allow for everyone to somewhat think out loud and share realizations in real time. It’s also fun if we’re all spending time together in a fun interesting lively place having all these realizations about a hard to decipher, complex work of art like Paradise.
Our Dialogue and my Take Aways
The Spaniard was nice. Brunch was lovely. The Guinness was good. The conversation? It was great! We talked about (minus any spoilers), why Toni Morrison titles the book Paradise, as I mentioned above, the various “wars” and divisions throughout the book, the nature of power and control, and I wondered a lot about Toni Morrison’s overarching stance, especially on religion and humanism. Based on our conversation about Paradise, I think Ms. Morrison is trying to communicate inspiring humanist ideas summarized in a subplot flowing through the work in which the town is divided between what is engraved on the town’s communal oven. Ms. Morrison evolves what it is understood or proposed it should say from the quote from the bible, “Beware the Furrow of his Brow” —> “Be the Furrow of his Brow” —> “We are the Furrow of his Brow” landing on what Ms. Morrison thinks (I think). The Kingdom of God is not “out there”. She seems to be telling us readers, what Jesus is quoted as saying, “The Kingdom of God is within you.”