Through the Looking Glass: Wonderland at Work
July 21, 2015 | Ann Kowal Smith
From Books@Work’s earliest days, people have consistently asked, “how does reading literature have anything to do with the workplace?” We’ve talked about this topic many times on The Notebook, including the power of literature to develop critical reading skills, to challenge our assumptions, and to trigger direct conversations about work. But Cecily Hill’s recent post about the enduring quality of Alice in Wonderland, on the book’s 150th anniversary, caused me to reflect on this point again.
What is it about the iconic little girl who falls down the rabbit hole that connects so powerfully to Books@Work?
We put people in boxes. Where they work, what they do, where they grew up, how they dress, how they speak – we categorize people in ways that seriously limit our understanding of their full selves. And this also limits our view of ourselves. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Duchess tells a slightly confused Alice (and I’m paraphrasing a highly convoluted pronouncement): Don’t believe that you are only what others believe you are. This powerful message lies at the very core of our values – the very reason we work hard to bring Books@Work to as many people as we can.
For our participants, it’s life changing. One Books@Work participant expressed her surprise about her Books@Work experience:
“I really thought I would read the books and listen, but it became much bigger. We felt freedom enough to all keep talking. Regardless of who was sitting in the room. And for a person like me that’s big. I’m frequently too easily intimidated. I’ll always be that way, but there are people in this building that I’m more apt to strike up a conversation with than I have ever been, regardless of their a little more intimidating position.”
And another participant, in a powerful moment, shared,
“I knew I wasn’t dumb, but I found myself sharing ideas I didn’t know I had, in part because I had never had the opportunity.”
Beyond their pleasure at what they find in themselves, an overwhelming majority of our participants tell us how surprised and delighted they are by what they find in each other. On reading Jorge Luis Borges, one shared
“you had seven different people read it and you [had] seven individual takes on the story… [it was a] “mind-blowing kind of thing that I never thought I would get with a book.”
And in a company with a diverse set of participants, another commented,
“I knew a lot of people thought this one [participant] was weird. After the class, they started to appreciate him for the value [he brought]. He really put some thought into everything. A lot of people unfairly judged him. I’m glad that he came and we saw a different side of him.”
By seeing the capability of others in a new light, we may let down our guard and find a little more of our authentic selves to share.
In Lewis Carroll’s sequel, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, Alice finds herself in a magical wood where “things have no names.” She chances upon a fawn, who greets her with no fear. Unable to exchange names, they
“walked together through the wood, Alice with her arms clasped lovingly round the soft neck of the Fawn, till they came out into another open field, and here the Fawn gave a sudden bound into the air, and shook itself free from Alice’s arms. ‘I’m a Fawn!’ it cried out in a voice of delight, ‘and, dear me! you’re a human child!’ A sudden look of alarm came into its beautiful brown eyes, and in another moment it had darted away a full speed.”
At Books@Work, we exhort people to leave their positions at the door and to enter the seminar space ready to engage as individuals. And it works. Like Alice and the Fawn, in that short hour, our participants openly enjoy each other’s company in ways the workplace does not normally occasion: free of hierarchy and preconceived ideas. But unlike Alice and the Fawn, as they return to the workplace and resume their “names” and roles, that powerful leveling experience lives on.
Cecily sums up Alice beautifully: “a person is far more than he or she seems; our interiors belie our exteriors.” Alice herself reminds us that retaining our own sense of wonder – about the world, our colleagues and the people we encounter every day – brings untold reward and joy. By using literature to bring our full selves to work, we discover – with more than a little wonder – that the workplace might not be all it seems to be.
Feel like revisiting Alice yourself? See Google Books for a full-text copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There.
Image: Arthur Rackham illustrating Lewis Carroll, 1907, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – An unusually large saucepan flew close by it, and very nearly carried it off, [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ann Kowal Smith
Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.