The Art of Listening

I recently posted a review of the book The Art of Listening (Back, Les. 2007. Berg Publishers) on Goodreads but wanted to talk about it here as well. I have recommended this book to almost everyone I know, have my copy conspicuously placed on my desk at work. The cover photo (by Nicola Evans, Antonio Genco and Gerard Mitchell) traps the eye, demanding closer study. An entire course on human expression could be taught using this image alone. The book, however, is full of similarly captivating images with their accompanying stories.

Les Back, professor of sociology at Goldsmith’s College in London, ties the images and stories together, fusing interpretation of scholarship and humanity in an easily read and understood style.

“If a writer’s experience and subjectivity is useful we need to think why? Here I am suggesting that these experiences are of little use if they are not put to work in service of reaching out to others. (Back, 160).”

A writer’s experience and subjectivity are obviously highly relevant to readers. The writer completes his/her work and the experiences transfer to the reader who must now make a choice: either leave the words undisturbed on the page, quietly slip the book back on the shelf and tiptoe out of the writer’s room, or drink from the well that will allow our seeds of humanity to germinate, grow and ultimately feed others. Back believes in and paints a pointillistic style of humanity in The Art of Listening; each individual human being has value– is necessary in fact– in the whole. If we accept and truly believe this hypothesis, we must learn to listen to those beings whose lives touch ours on this canvas of life. Their stories enhance our own but only through listening can we learn those stories.

This book has changed my life. I am a better person for having read it. If a reader selects this book solely to learn about Donna, the woman on the cover, her story alone has the potential to cause a life-change. The reader, however, who reads Back’s entire message can learn of the human impact of bias and prejudice, inequity and segregation, and emotional isolation. These destroy hope. Back proposes, on the other hand, that true listening to our fellow human beings builds hope. “This kind of hope is established in the accumulation of small acts that defy division, hatred and mutual misunderstanding . . . . (Back, 167).”

I choose hope.


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