Through Other Eyes: The Collective Impact of Reading Together

Through Other Eyes: The Collective Impact of Reading Together

There’s reading, and there’s reading. Sometimes we read opportunistically, with the sole objective to take something we need from the text. It might be a manual, it might be a technical article or it might be an article highlighting the news of the day.

But sometimes (less frequently, I fear) we read for the sheer pleasure of immersing ourselves in a story, of taking ourselves to a far-off land, solving a mystery or stepping into the shoes of a character. It might be a novel or a piece of narrative nonfiction, but we relish the words and “live” the experience rather than taking away lessons.

Louise M. Rosenblatt's Literature as Exploration

Louise M. Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration

Devoting her life to understanding the relationship between a text and its reader, the preeminent education scholar Louise Rosenblatt distinguishes these reading processes, which she calls transactions. The first is utilitarian (she calls this “efferent” reading), where the text provides specific information to be carried away. The second is sensory (in her words, “aesthetic”), where the text invites an experiential response through the senses. In practical terms, she explains, “someone else can read the newspaper or a scientific work for us and summarize it acceptably. No one, however, can read a poem for us.”

Because we bring such a personal response to sensory reading, we engage with the text through a set of mental models that represent where we are in a particular moment. No one can bring our context, our life experience or our emotions and sensibilities to create an experience of a text that perfectly mirrors our own. We may react differently at different times in our lives, but we tend to stay within our own contexts as we explore the parameters offered by the poem, the novel or the story.

I’d like to offer a third approach – a collaborative approach – that moves beyond the single reader experiencing a text to include a group of readers, each of whom approaches the same text but brings divergent contexts to understanding and absorbing it. When we encounter other readers who have a wildly different experience with a text, we learn not only from the text itself but from the others as well. Powered by a well-facilitated discussion, we step into their shoes to see the text through their eyes, ultimately training ourselves to see other elements of the world through their eyes.

This is one of the most magical – and practical – elements of Books@Work.

A recent story brings this to life. In sharing her reaction to Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, a Books@Work participant identified a young male character with whom she struggled to connect because he laughed at a time of great stress. When she shared her frustration with the group, another participant disagreed, sharing that he could really identify with the character, that he too had found himself laughing at inopportune times. As frustrated as she was, her colleague was insistent, inviting her to explore why the character bothered her so much:  

“I really have to open my mind and think just because I would feel that way in a certain situation doesn’t mean that somebody else will feel the same way. This made me try to see things through the position of this young boy who is clearly different from me and accept that as being just his way of doing things.”

As she continued to discuss her views with the group, she realized that her older son tended to smile at odd times when his mirth seemed out of place. Her discussion of the story and her own reactions with other readers encouraged her to revisit “the judgements that I make about other people’s behaviors based on the way that I would behave.”

Her story suggests that the collaborative approach offers an enriching hybrid of Rosenblatt’s utilitarian and sensory approaches. It permits a reader to “live” a literary experience, but then to view it again through the eyes of other readers, to expand the potential impact of the text. But the learnings come as much from the others and our own surprises as from the text itself. Rosenblatt’s bilateral “transaction” between text and reader becomes a multilateral transformative experience that enriches both the text and those who share it.

With practice, this collaborative reading develops valuable skills to navigate the workplace and the world, to see everyday issues through other eyes as well. Another participant noted: “The discussions that we had for all three books really helped all of us see them in a different light from what we read on our own. And you take those conversations and you bring them back into your work environment, you look at something and, then you discuss something with your team, and you [realize], ‘Oh, okay, I could look at it this way also.’”

Later in her career, Rosenblatt reflected: “For years, I have extolled the potentialities of literature for aiding us to understand ourselves and others, for widening our horizons to include temperaments and cultures different from our own, for helping us to clarify our conflicts in values, for illuminating our world.” Books@Work demonstrates that sharing literature does just that and more, inviting others to share their cultures and their experiences, and unlocking a broader experience by creating the conditions to learn not only from the text but from the collective.  

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Image: Vincent van Gogh, Woman Reading a Novel, 1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam [Fair Use] via

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.