Image: Carl Larsson, Required Reading, 1900, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org
A few weeks ago, we conducted interviews with participants at a manufacturing company who had recently wrapped up a three-month-long Books@Work program. One engineer explained how she found the sessions – and the reading choices – to be unexpectedly refreshing:
“I was really surprised that I liked John Steinbeck. . . You think John Steinbeck, [and] you think, ‘Oh, it’s like required reading in high school.’ I think when you read that stuff in high school, you don’t have an appreciation. You just get this bad thought in your head. At least I did. Then I started reading short stories [with Books@Work], and I was like, ‘Wow. I really like this.’ So, I went to the library and got more Steinbeck books to read.”
Surprise and joy in revisiting required reading from school years is a reaction we hear quite a bit. It’s common sense: Putting a book on a required reading list makes it feel like an arduous task to be completed. It’s normal to associate authors like John Steinbeck, Willa Cather and F. Scott Fitzgerald with memories of deadlines and tests rather than the connection we felt to the literature. But revisiting Steinbeck’s The Long Valley as an adult in a Books@Work session puts the book in an entirely different context; you’re there by choice, and you’re there with others who want to read the book too. It’s liberating.
But the engineer we spoke to touches on something more profound. “I think when you read that stuff in high school, you don’t have an appreciation,” she told us. After a long chat, we asked if there were any particular moments that would stay with her, and she came back to The Long Valley:
“I’m just still stuck on the Steinbeck. I went in not knowing what I thought about it. . . I tend to be very surface-level, just because, to me, in my engineering brain, you just tell me what you want me to see. He does not write like that. Every sentence has a much deeper meaning. . . There’s more to it than just the words on the page.”
She continued: “I really liked 1984 in high school. And I re-read that when I was an adult and I thought, ‘Oh man. There’s a lot more that I’m taking from this now than I did before.” The sense of satisfaction she got from re-reading Steinbeck and Orwell came not only from the feeling of freedom that comes from reading by choice, but the feeling of finally grasping a book about adults as an adult.
It’s crucial to challenge high school and college students with mature literature. But a short story about marital strife or a book about an authoritarian regime can resonate so much more profoundly in a grown adult with a childhood, a past, a family and a career. Revisiting these books – especially with fellow adults and colleagues – triggers a process of rediscovery and recognition. Now I see why Gatsby pined so long for Daisy. Now I realize why Mrs. Bennett was so worried about finding a husband for each of her daughters. Very few things can shine a spotlight on a text like life experience. The engineer’s joy was not that she liked an author she once dreaded reading; it was that she finally understood the power of the book and why it might have been required in the first place.
Beloit College professor Brock Spencer, a longtime Books@Work facilitator, recently explained on our blog what he has enjoyed most about his experience leading sessions. “Definitely being able to take advantage of the range of life experiences that a varied and mature audience brings to the discussion,” he said. “I was regularly surprised by connections they made that had not occurred to me – family and community, as well as work connections, a broader collective knowledge of history and experience in society.” Books@Work provides a rare opportunity for adults to read together, to explore their histories, to share their knowledge and to grow, all the while reminding participants that reading isn’t just for students in a classroom.