The end of 2018 brings with it a wave of “Best Books” round-ups – and we at Books@Work are no exception. But instead of naming favorites in 2018, our list highlights the books and short stories that spurred the most profound, perplexing and thought-provoking discussions for Books@Work participants this year.
We believe that meaningful conversation kindles social connection in the workplace and beyond. These ten diverse narratives represent the essential “ingredients” for good conversation, from dynamic characters and ethical dilemmas to energetic plots and unfamiliar worlds.
Today’s interview features Books@Work facilitator Dr. Heather Braun, an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Akron, where she also serves as Honors Advisor and Internship Liaison for the department.
“How have you managed to pivot from the classroom setting to facilitating literature discussions with adults in the workplace?”
In both settings, it’s really important to me to make the material matter and to show readers how it’s relevant to their lives. I think Books@Work is a really effective way of doing this. You’re getting to hear honest reactions from readers who are not paying for a class in the “real world” and who are seeking that relevance, too, in what they read.
Both settings also offer readers a chance to connect with each other. That’s something I also try to do in my classes because I think it increases engagement and interest, and my students are more likely to read the material when they feel like they are a part of a kind of family that listens and supports them.
At Books@Work, we find books and short stories that generate meaningful discussion and encourage colleagues to share more of themselves. As one participant shared, a good book “makes it easier to break down people’s issues and have difficult conversations, because it’s hidden behind the cloak of the material.”
For many groups, a “good book” is a novel with dynamic characters and ethical dilemmas. For others, it might be a nonfiction narrative like Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, which often resonates with engineers and manufacturing employees. But some books, like James McBride’s memoir The Color of Water, find success and provoke powerful discussions with groups across the board.
What is the book about?
At Books@Work, we use literature to generate meaningful conversation, bridge divides and encourage human connection. This Thanksgiving week, we invite you to grab a friend or family member to read and discuss O. Henry’s classic story “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen” together.
Can a hairdresser from 1958 teach an alpha male manager in an industrial factory something about leadership today? She can if he’s willing to listen – not just to her, but to his colleagues’ comments about her. A story about a woman and a boy in 1950s Harlem inspired a group of white men in an industrial company in rural Western New York State to begin to trust each other’s attitudes about work.
I facilitated a conversation about Langston Hughes’s short story “Thank You, Ma’am” for Books@Work with a group of a manufacturing plant’s employees. The group included floor employees and members of upper management. In Hughes’s story, a boy attempts to snatch a woman’s purse. The woman deftly wrestles him to the ground, brings him home, feeds him and, just as deftly, schools him. This very short story reveals a back story about the woman – Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones – who, in trusting the boy, teaches him to trust, and to respect himself and others.
He died almost 100 years ago, but Franz Kafka’s voice remains oddly relevant today. He wrote such bizarre and affecting stories that he left behind his own adjective, “kafkaesque”, to describe strange and nightmarish situations embedded in everyday life. With no shortage of the strange these days, we were particularly excited to have Books@Work featured in The New York Times – comparing Kafka’s iconic book, The Metamorphosis, with an powerful article on social isolation and loneliness, written by Dhruv Khullar, a physician and professor of healthcare policy at Columbia University.
Kafka’s stories feature disaffected characters who push the edges of the human condition – and often fail. The Metamorphosis is no exception. Traveling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to find that he has been transformed into a hideous bug. Unable to communicate, Gregor finds his sense of self and his relationship to his family and his work irreparably destroyed, with dire consequences.
After residents at a treatment facility for homeless veterans recently participated in the discussion of a short story, one social worker expressed surprise at the group’s ease and openness with each other. “I’m amazed at some of the insights they share [with each other] as they’re reading,” he said. “They say, ‘Well, I’ve known you for six weeks and been in group therapy with you – and this is the most I’ve ever heard you talk.”
The Veterans’ Domiciliary at the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio serves veterans facing challenges including homelessness, mental illness, trauma and addiction. Male and female residents can often stay for months at a time as they work to improve their mental health, seek employment and get back on their feet.
In early 2015, Books@Work launched two prolific and ongoing community programs in collaboration with the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. The first program gathers medical center staff members to encourage wellness and stronger workplace relationships. The second program focuses on residents in the VA’s Veterans’ Domiciliary, a residential rehabilitation and treatment center for veterans.
In both programs, participants meet for weekly one-hour sessions, facilitated by professors from local colleges including Case Western Reserve University, the University of Akron and Oberlin College. Professors facilitate in four-week periods, representing a wide range of backgrounds including literature, religious studies, history and sociology – thus, participants are exposed to various disciplines and facilitation styles.
A few years ago, an online debate broke out about relatability and its artistic value. After attending a performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear, “This American Life” host Ira Glass tweeted about the play’s “fantastic acting” and humor – and yet his biggest takeaway was that “Shakespeare is not relatable.” In a scathing response, New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead took issue with what she called the “scourge of relatability” and its recent critical influence. To demand that a work be relatable sets a troubling expectation, Mead wrote, “that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.”
How much much do we need to relate to a text – or to people, new ideas, or even colleagues in the workplace – in order to accept and appreciate them?