Image: Sonia Delauney, Electric Prisms, 1914, Tate Modern, London, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Note: We are pleased to feature Books@Work professor Alexis Baker. Alexis is a veteran educator, with sixteen years of teaching experience at both the college and high school level. She is currently a PhD candidate in Kent State’s Literacy, Rhetoric and Social Justice program. There, she is completing a dissertation on women’s Holocaust art, which she views as narratives of survival and resistance against oppression.
We talk a lot about the powers that literature seemingly holds in our world. Literature can inspire, bridge gaps of time, place, and experience and offer perspectives into people’s lives that are far removed from our own. As a Books@Work instructor, I have come to experience the power of literature to equalize and humanize.
The first Books@Work session that I led was for a well-established downtown law firm. As I walked into the imposing art-deco building, the faces of partners from decades past gazed out at me from gilded frames. They were the faces of people whose intellectual, social and legal power was indisputable and I was more than a little intimidated. Imagine my surprise when I got to the room reserved for our session and was introduced to a group of people from every branch of the firm. Human resources was represented, as were IT, paralegal and litigators. I had come prepared for a reluctant, somewhat stymied discussion; after all, they didn’t know me and I didn’t know how well they knew each other. Instead, after the initial natural awkwardness of new people in a new situation, our conversations blossomed.
The group had chosen Drew Magary’s The Postmortal, a post-apocalyptic story about the dystopia created by the invention of a cure for aging. The book touched on themes of morality, survival, love and the value of life. As we discussed the readings, that magic teaching thing happened where I could throw out a guiding idea and then step back as the group discussed and debated. It was wonderful. Even more wonderful was the way lines of hierarchy evaporated as the discussions progressed. People seemed to stop worrying about who held what position in the firm and began to speak openly about their own experiences and values. It wasn’t only that they felt free to challenge each other, but that they found spaces of community and common experience. Several members had nursed ailing parents and had to make tough end-of-life choices. We spoke of being the targets of racism and sexism, of the pain of lost love, we even laughed over the follies of getting older and the surprising gratitude we felt to not be 18 anymore. We found that, regardless of our established roles as teacher, student, lawyer, secretary, etc., we were able to come together through the themes of the odd and vaguely disturbing book we had chosen to read.I realized, as our sessions went on, that our discussion of literature had created a safe space, a welcoming and vibrant community of readers, many of whom only met during that one hour every few weeks, yet had found comfort in each other. Our chosen book touched on deeply human themes of love, fear, loss and death, things we all, regardless of title or salary, must go through.
I often balk at the literature myth, the idea that reading can move mountains and change societies. My sessions with this group showed that literature can actually do something more immediate and necessary. Reading literature in the workplace can make us step out of our job descriptions and move past salary scales into spaces of common experience. Literature in the workplace equalizes us and allows us to speak in ways we might never have spoken to people we may never have encountered. Workplaces are among the most well-established hierarchies in our culture. We know what everyone does by their job description and who everyone “is” by their titles. Reading literature in the workplace pushes us beyond that into knowing a bit more about who people are and toward the assurance that they are just like us.