The Wit and Wisdom of Misha Glouberman

Reviewed in this essay: The Chairs Are Where the People Go by Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti. Faber and Faber, 2011.

You can tell the publishers weren’t quite sure what to do with Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti’s book The Chairs Are Where the People Go because the explanatory subtitle, “How to Live, Work, and Play in the City,” really doesn’t capture the nature of the book. Certainly some of it is prescriptive, and there’s a lot about play and a bit about city living, but there’s so much more.

In an earlier age, this book might have been called The Wit and Wisdom of Misha Glouberman. In some ways it harks back to the “table talk” literary tradition of a writer recording the spoken words of a notable character, most famously as James Boswell did for Samuel Johnson. In her introduction the novelist Sheila Heti explains that she had long contemplated writing a story based on Glouberman, with whom she co-founded the Trampoline Hall lecture series, but realized that “I never found the project as interesting as talking to my friend.” So, instead, she sat down with him and recorded him talking about things he cared about.

Fortunately, it turned out that Glouberman speaks in fully-formed paragraphs, and the resulting combination of an informal, friendly speaking tone with coherent explorations of interesting issues is part of the book’s charm.

The end result reminds me of the early essays of Michel de Montaigne, the French philosopher who coined the term “essay.” Like them, it is a series of numbered chapters, of widely varying length but often short, in an apparently random order, on a series of subjects inspired by the personal experiences and readings of the author but which become jumping-off points toward wider insights. In Glouberman’s case, two sources of experience recur often: the classes he teaches on games and improvisation, and his experience with a neighbourhood association fighting noise from bars. For most people, these would just be a quick story, but like Montaigne, Glouberman brings a considered thoughtfulness and a slightly off-centre way of looking at things to these and other experiences that results in genuine wisdom and insight.

Every so often, Glouberman is also just plain wrong – at least to my mind – but thanks to his thoughtful and informal way of being opinionated, his wrongness becomes a feature, a way to further engage with the book by sparking an internal discussion. The most telling example comes in chapter 53, “Storytelling is not the same thing as a conversation.” It’s a chapter that ends with one of his best insights: “It seems to me that the most pleasing thing you can find yourself saying in a conversation is something you haven’t said before.”

To get there, he argues that a story isn’t a conversation but a one-way monologue, and imagines people who tell great stories nervously rehearsing them in advance, “and that seems just awful.” Yet many of the chapters in the book are essentially him telling great stories without rehearsal – showing that it’s entirely possible. And his stories – like those of the best storytellers – are a brilliant jumping-off point for conversation, even if just in the reader’s head.