A Book That Works: The Utility of Literature Outside the Academy

A Book That Works: The Utility of Literature Outside the Academy

This week, we are thrilled to share insights and reflections from Erin Ulrich, a senior English major at Oberlin College who recently completed a month-long internship with Books@Work.

My internship with Books@Work has focused primarily on data-analysis and listening to interview responses from program participants. While the nature of this work may seem mundane at first, it has offered me a first-hand glimpse into how exactly Books@Work works. While the impact of the program improving colleague relationships and promoting a fruitful, healthy and productive work environment are obvious from the company interviews, I have been particularly moved by the community interviews.  

Lemons 2 Lemonade, one of Books@Work’s community programs based out of the East Cleveland Court, offered Books@Work sessions for women in lieu of incarceration. From the first voice I heard through my headphones, it was clear that this particular Books@Work program was far more than a life skills program. Bound together by difficult circumstances, the women in the program used poetry and the characters in the books they read as mobilizing forces for understanding and empathizing with each other’s experiences.

Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky_At Work

Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky, At Work, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org

The conversations around motherhood, life’s big questions and being Black in America were made possible because of the books. More than just a springboard for conversation, the books created a safe, shared space for validation, empathy and to simply find the courage to “pick the pen back up and start to write again.” The books became a means of mapping out lived experiences onto the space of fictional characters and their lives. Just as a good story makes you feel as though you know its characters intimately, a good Books@Work discussion grants us the unique opportunity to reveal more of ourselves to others than we normally would.

As an English major, I have been warned time and time again against the taboo of simply responding to a text for the sake of speaking into existence what I feel upon reading it. To listen to the women in this program use the text as a vehicle for speaking power to their own truths was not just refreshing, but gave my English literature B.A. prowess a slap in the face. Listening to the Lemons 2 Lemonade program interviews forced me to sit down and ask myself when I last read a book because it made me feel connected to others through our shared humanity – or even the last time I talked to a friend about a book I read for pleasure.

One participant in the program remarked that she soon learned not to be afraid of poetry, saying, “It’s just how you feel, but you’re speaking it out in words, with your heart. It doesn’t matter if it’s bad, sad, glad or whatever. It’s going to touch you in all different types of ways.”

In the academy, literature can touch you, but if you can’t prove it textually, then your experience is expressly excluded from the discussion. We look so much at what a text itself is doing that we forget to reflect on what the text does for us. But the voices are there, waiting for space and permission to be articulated for the world to hear. The book that touches us is just the book that we are waiting for – a book that works for us.

Image: Esaias van de Velde, Title Page With Tools for Cultivating the Land, c. 1617, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org

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Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan is a Development Communications Associate at the Cleveland Orchestra and a part-time member of the Books@Work team. She continues to write posts for our blog.