How We Choose Our Books

How We Choose Our Books

Man is a storytelling animal – we tell stories to preserve our past, record our legacy and to teach our children. And we have done so in writing at least since the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BC). By using high-quality stories about the human condition, Books@Work gives our participants a lens through which to examine the whole of human behavior, in ways that provide for rich and relevant conversations. We know that when we read narrative literature, we identify with characters and reflect on their relationships. We see ourselves in the stories of others and we share our stories.

This is why we don’t read business or self-help books: they tell people how to behave rather than provide an opportunity to explore and learn about themselves and each other.

To date, we’ve read over 680 texts in Books@Work seminars – a wide range of fiction and narrative nonfiction for an equally diverse range of audiences. Each day, we learn more about what makes a book enjoyable and engaging for public audiences, and we work hard to ensure that, in each of our seminars, both faculty and participants have the opportunity to read and talk about a book that captivates them.

Tablet V of The Epic of Gilgamesh via Wikimedia Commons

Tablet V of The Epic of Gilgamesh, c. 2100 BC [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

On the outside, our method for bringing professors into workplaces and community settings might seem easy – pick a book, any book and have a professor facilitate the discussion of it. In fact, choosing the books is a lengthy, involved process, and it’s one we get a lot of questions about from professors, participants and company and community sponsors alike. Over the past three years, we’ve sharpened our strategy for choosing books that fascinate and provoke conversations among our participants and the academics who work with them, equally.

Once we have established a list of participants for a program, we survey the participants to learn about their reading habits. We want to know what they read for fun, the last book they enjoyed and which genres they are interested in reading. We use this information to choose books they will enjoy and to introduce them to books they wouldn’t have thought to pick up on their own. Our participants consistently tell us that they love how our programs broaden their reading horizons.

We then work with faculty members to pick books that play to their strengths and interests. For the first seminar in any program, we jointly select a book to get the ball rolling. But for later seminars, the participants choose among three books selected by faculty with our guidance. This way, participants are engaged in the process – they are active co-creators of their learning experience.

At Books@Work, we don’t have a set booklist. Nonetheless, Books@Work books tend to share certain common characteristics.

Most importantly, whether fiction or nonfiction, Books@Work books are always narrative. The presence of story, we have found, helps participants bring their own experiences to the discussion. Narrative always asks people to imagine or interpret instead of passively receiving facts as they read. What’s more, because narrative is a foundational human tool for sharing meaning, everyone has knowledge to draw from and knowledge to share when talking about stories, whether those stories are based in fact or fiction.

A perfect Books@Work text provides multiple narratives, and no two groups ever have the same discussion.

We’ve taught classics like Othello, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We read books from other countries and from authors whose work is not traditionally taught in school. These books provide meaty, substantial questions and issues. We often offer books that pose a clearly-defined moral or ethical dilemma – but not an answer. Participants and professors alike enjoy puzzling through moral problems, as well as seeing others’ reactions to the dilemma.

Recent favorites in that vein have included Drew Magary’s The Postmortal, short fiction from Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jhumpa Lahiri and Raymond Carver, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, James McBride’s The Color of Water and many others.

Ultimately, we strive to offer a balanced mix of the intellectually nourishing and entertaining. In doing so, we create an experience through which people learn from conversation rather than by absorbing information. In a Books@Work session, the book or story opens discussions where people share ideas, practicing critical thinking, empathy, listening and expressing difference of opinion with civility and respect. Reading literature is not about learning from example. It’s about learning from each other.

Image: John William Waterhouse, A Tale from the Decameron, 1916, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading

Shakespeare on the Shop Floor

The Public Humanities Can Thrive: 5 Ideas from the MLA

How Challenging Literature Shows Deep Respect for Learners

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Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.

Jessica Isaac

Jessica Isaac

Jessica Isaac is a former member of the Books@Work team.