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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Ottawa Area Utne Reader Salon

Blog About Town
By John W. MacDonald


The Ottawa-Area Utne Reader Salon is a thinking person’s evening out. The salon is a discussion group which meets the 3rd Monday of every month at the Hintonburg Community Centre (1064 Wellington St.) at 7:30pm to discuss a pre-selected topic from a random list. (By the way, Utne rhymes with chutney.)

Over the holidays I read Clifton Fadiman’s The Lifetime Reading Plan. In his introduction he advises, “that part of the pleasure you get from this kind of reading depends on the attitude with which you approach it.”

Like Fadiman, I like to think that I provide my readers a listing of book-related events that, as Fadiman suggests “be of more than transient interest and value.” The Utne Reader Salon is just one of those activities in Ottawa.

A recent addition to Ottawa’s airwaves is Nigel Beale’s “The Biblio File”. The one hour radio show has author interviews, conversations with book collectors, sellers, and experts; literary gossip and readings. It debuted last month and, incidentally, a segment from each show features a reading from Fadiman’s book. The show airs every Monday at 6:00am on CKCU, 93.1 FM.

At the Utne Salon there are surely enough topics to merit a varied and wide audience participation. The range of topics does vary wildly – some appearing more interesting than others at first glance. However, even the most esoteric subject matter can make for entertaining and lively discussion. Andrew Drake has been hosting this event for thirteen years. He and his partner, Sheree Johnston, have of database collection of 2000 topics of which seven are chosen at random. These seven topics are then put on a ballot which the members rank which ever one they like the best for the next meeting’s topic of discussion.

A monthly email is sent out a week before the meeting reminding people the evening’s topic. Also people are told the topics two months in advance so they have plenty of lead time to mark their calendar.

In the past year the group has discussed a number of topics: “The Nature of Genius, Escape, What's Funny?, The Soul, What Bugs You the Most?, and Personal Control.“ As a member, there is no requirement to attend each and every salon, though there are plenty that do. You may only want to attend those topics of interest, but after one meeting, be forewarned, you may be hooked.

“It’s a disarmingly simple idea”, says Andrew Drake. I asked him what makes a good participant of the salon. “Listening is a key skill. For example, with twelve people in attendance you need twelve times as much listening time to allow the others to participate in speaking.”

I also asked him what the greatest thing you’ve learned in the past 13 years? I was initially surprised when he said, “Nothing really.” But I now understand that picking out that one moment is not the point of the salon. For him to sum up the past 13 years is difficult to do. “The meeting’s purpose is not conclusionary, it’s experiential,” he says.

Similarly, Sheree Johnston had always wanted to be involved in a discussion group like this and has loved it ever since her first meeting. Like others interested in the dynamics of conversation, the main appeal for her is to hear other people’s opinions on the various topics.

One of the aspects she enjoys about the Utne Reader Salon is that “we have had members of all ages, from teens to people in their eighties, attend. It’s just very interesting to hear all the varied opinions. It’s just magnificent. There really is no generation gap when talking about a specific topic.”

Founded in 1984 by Eric Utne, Utne Magazine reprints the best articles from over 2,000 alternative media sources. And in 1992, the Ottawa-Area Utne Reader Salon was founded by Brian Harris. It turned out that there were about thirty people from the Ottawa area who wanted to join up for the salon experience. Brian called everyone together and he ran the series for a year when Andrew Drake assumed the organizing duties in 1993. One other thing that Andrew has introduced is a magazine exchange on top of the salon discussion. You can pick up a magazine or two and bring in some to swap.

Andrew told me that they experimented with the concept of the “talking stick” about ten years ago to organize the discussion. You had to have a token to take the floor. But he thought it stifled the conversation so he abandoned the idea. I went to the December salon and very much enjoyed my first time and was surprised at the how polite and erudite the discussion played out. The night’s topic was "When did I become an adult? Or when will I?” Coming up next Monday, 16 January, the topic will be “Deeply Moving Events”. Remember, that part of the pleasure depends on the attitude with which you approach it.
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column originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen

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