What Can We Steal From Stephen Kuusisto’s Do Not Interrupt: A Playful Take on the Art of Conversation?

Title of Work and its Form: Do Not Interrupt: A Playful Take on the Art of Conversation, creative nonfiction
Author: Stephen Kuusisto
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The book was published by Sterling Publishing and can be found at fine bookstores everywhere.  Barnes & Noble will even sell you a Nook version of the book!

Bonuses:  Here is Mr. Kuusisto’s blog.  Here is an interview with Mr. Kuusisto.  This is Mr. Kuusisto’s Poetry Foundation page; read his poem, “Summer at North Farm!”

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Self-Understanding

Discussion:
This is a slim book of essays in which Mr. Kuusisto considers the most felicitous ways in which people can converse with each other.  Through the course of seven short essays, the book references a wide range of thinkers from the past and the present day.  Mr. Kuusisto, a gentleman who works in a number of genres, also brings in his own experiences with conversations in which he has participated and some he has overheard.  The book concludes with nominations for the inaugural class of the Conversationalist Hall of Fame.  (Where is the most appropriate place for such a building?)

I think that the most important choice Mr. Kuusisto makes in the book is to truly interact with the great thinkers he references throughout the volume.  The author does not treat Plato and Samuel Johnson as though they are busts on a tall pedestal, but as peers.  When we were in high school, it probably didn’t occur to us to engage in a meaningful discussion with the authors we read.  And such a discussion is, in some ways, impossible.  For example, I could probably have interesting conversations with some of the Justices who sit on the Supreme Court.  On the other hand, the Justices know so much more than I do about the Constitution and law that I would have trouble keeping up.  Mr. Kuusisto, of course, is a very smart man who has no problem entering into a philosophical fray.  The primary point is that he adheres to his own philosophy.  Toward the beginning of the book, he points out the “principle of simultaneous elevation.”  A great conversation requires all participants to be equals in some way.

Fun personal note: Isn’t it strange how it always seems that references to things come in big bunches?  I don’t think I had thought about the Symposium for a decade until I read Do Not Interrupt.  A few days later, one of my students showed me an antique copy of the book he had purchased at the library book sale and I was able to more convincingly tell him why he should read the work.

Mr. Kuusisto spends a great deal of the book discussing Plato’s Symposium.  (Why not check the book out right here.  Hey, politicians: public domain is a beautiful thing!)  Plato’s work is a series of speeches between friends in which they discuss the nature of love.  I love the way Mr. Kuusisto provides play-by-play for the Symposium.  It has been fascinating to watch the way college students confront philosophical works.  I remember that I was in their shoes at one point; philosophical texts can be as hard to read as they are intellectually fulfilling!  Mr. Kuusisto elevates the reader to his level by breaking the Symposium into bite-sized pieces.  He offers excerpts from the work, then a little bit of summary and then his own analysis.  Not only does Mr. Kuusisto expand the possible audience for his work, but he also strengthens his relationship with the reader, turning the book into more of a real conversation.

Mr. Kuusisto is a great creative nonfiction writer, so I’m not surprised that he included some interesting personal stories that relate to his themes.  At one point, Mr. Kuusisto describes a time during his childhood when a Bible salesman called upon his mother.  Now, Mr. Kuusisto’s mother knew a lot more about the Bible than the salesman did, but wasn’t a jerk as she outdid the salesman in conversation.  The anecdote demonstrates one of Mr. Kuusisto’s points: “it’s possible to confound your fellow conversant and still remain agreeable.”  How did Mr. Kuusisto remember a dialogue that happened decades ago?  He’s an introspective gentleman who truly wants to understand himself and why he does what he does and what really happens around him. 

What Should We Steal?

  • Interact with the all-time greats in your field.  Great hitters such as Miguel Cabrera are better understood in the light of folks such as Ty Cobb.  (Who, admittedly, probably wouldn’t have been very kind to Miggy.)  Statesmen of the future will be best understood in the context of those who came before.  You spent decades developing your understanding of literature and of life…make use of that knowledge!
  • Divide philosophical works into bite-sized portions.  Some readers require a bit of hand-holding to keep up with the conversation, and it’s not always a bad thing to offer them the help.
  • Scrutinize yourself as much as you do others.  The goal is not just to “think about yourself,” the goal is to understand yourself.

 

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