Image: Charles Meer Webb, Beim Advokaten [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Books@Work has been an enriching experience personally and professionally. Although I’m not an expert on teaching literature by any means, I have had a lifelong love of both non-fiction and fiction. Nevertheless, I’ve battled some self-doubt when it comes to teaching this material and communicating the meaning and value of reading. Funny enough, what I’ve encountered in working with Books@Work participants at two different locations is that sometimes they can be a bit scared, uncertain how to respond or think about the ideas represented in great literature. So in effect, a major learning goal of the program has to be: don’t be afraid of this stuff! To this end, I try to emphasize to participants that there isn’t one “right” way to read, respond, or interpret a book.
In fact, a major benefit of reading and participating in this type of program is finding out what you actually think and feel about a novel. It’s so common that we can neglect or avoid thinking critically about the things we read. We often experience the world without ever really reflecting on it. It’s a real shame. As the world gets busier and faster, it gets easier and easier to live a life without self-awareness or self-reflection. This is why a program like this is so valuable and important: reading great fiction or non-fiction challenges us to step outside of instinctual and shallow patterns of thinking and living.
As they reflect on themselves and their world, participants begin to bring unique and interesting observations to the seminar. Whereas traditional college students can sometimes find it challenging to relate ideas and concepts to their own views and lives (perhaps due to their youth and inexperience), Books@Work groups are diverse, and the discussions include a rich variety of reactions and inferences about literature. Participants have a lifetime of experiences that give them insight into characters and storylines. And once they grow more comfortable with group discussion, these experiences can provide thoughtful and profound responses. I’ve really been moved by folks’ reactions to some of the things we’ve read, reactions I could never have predicted.
This really speaks to why we have groups like this or book clubs or any other type of discussion about literature. Fundamentally, reading is a social activity. We read alone, but there is a natural drive to share our experience, our responses and reactions to a text. There are probably lots of reasons for this, but I think one of the main reasons is that until we share what we’ve learned with others, the reading experience isn’t really complete.