Monday, February 06, 2006

Mouthiness Runs In My Family

Current mood: remembering and missing my grandfather

Category: Life

My brother forwarded me this archived article about our grandfather, Lyman Bryson. He (my brother, not my grandfather) recently was released from a federal prison in Houston, where he did two years for selling drugs on the internet. Now he's spending a lot of time surfing, googling and catching up on what he's missed.

I suggested he write a book about his experience. I even gave him the title: "From Yale to Jail". So far, he's resisted my arm-twisting. Maybe he'll start a blog. Blogging is so easy, anyone can do it, and he's got quite a story to tell.


Three men got together in a tiny Manhattan studio this week to discuss a widely unread book. The occasion was CBS's long-run (15 years), longhair radio show Invitation to Learning. The three men: Critic John Mason Brown, Essayist Clifton Fadiman and Moderator Lyman Bryson.
The three quickly dismissed Walter Savage Landor's Imaginary Conversations as "a dead great book," then had a lively conversation about conversation while more than a million people listened. Talk is cheap, the three decided, but conversation has a different price tag on it. "There must be mind in talk to make it conversation," said Moderator Bryson. "Television programs are so much chewing gum for the eyes," said Critic Brown. "A conversation has to be more than just chewing gum or wastage." Essayist Fadiman urged intellectual exercise. "You can cultivate the conversational muscles as you can cultivate the muscles that enable you to play golf or tennis," he suggested.

Dante & Dostoevsky. This week's Invitation to Learning marked the program's 765th week on the air. The first show, on May 26, 1940, began with the U.S. Constitution. Since then, on Sundays from 11:30 to noon, about 550 conversationalists have appeared on the program to discuss more than 750 books. Among them: Historian Arnold Toynbee, Shakespearean Producer Margaret Webster, Socialist Aneurin Bevan, Engineer Herbert Hoover, Philosopher Bertrand Russell, Actress Lillian Gish. The books and authors discussed were and continue to be uncompromisingly first class, from Aeschylus and Aristotle to Balzac and Brillat-Savarin, from Dante and Dostoevsky to Thucydides and Thackeray. Invitation to Learning is the only network program in the U.S. to devote full half-hour discussions consistently to such books as Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Aquinas' Being and Essence, and Agricola's De Re Metallica.
Turning Points In History. For a while CBS radio advertised the show with modest pride as "our 69th most popular program." The show has never sought and never had a sponsor. Moderator Bryson, a florid, white-thatched Nebraskan, is the animator of the show and knows how to keep the talk lively and the air from going dead. "The goal of the program," he says, "is to get a wider and wider public to read those books out of the history of the world mind which are readable, and also to discuss books that are turning points in history which are not readable, like Einstein's Relativity."

Bryson insists, however, that Invitation to Learning is not a program of information, but one of ideas. He proves it by avoiding experts who spout a limitless stream of facts and by seeking out knowledgeable amateurs who can juggle ideas. The show is spontaneous and, unlike many "ad lib" radio or TV shows, unrehearsed. Its quality varies. At times it is pedestrian, at other times brilliant. As Moderator Bryson knows, a half hour is not enough time to get a conversational ball rolling very far. He depends on his listeners to pick up the ball at the end of the show. Many do. That is part of what keeps them listening.
There's a great cover of the June 6, 1955 issue of Time mag, which gets deleted when I try to get rid of all the hotmail code surrounding it. It's a very flattering portrait of Marshal Josip Broz Tito.