New Opportunities, New Perspectives: The Value of Books We Dislike

New Opportunities, New Perspectives: The Value of Books We Dislike

I recently had the chance to speak with Professor Sabine Ferran Gerhardt about her experience leading several programs with Books@Work. Sabine is an Associate Professor at the University of Akron, where she specializes in Criminology and Justice Studies, with an emphasis on the children of incarcerated parents and school shooter prevention. Sabine trains hundreds of child care providers annually in how to prepare for and respond to active shooter situations.

Books@Work uses professors from a wide range of disciplines in our programs. Your background is in Early Childhood Development. How does this background impact your Books@Work experience?

Sabine Ferran Gerhardt

I was thrilled to be asked to lead a Books@Work seminar. It’s a chance to talk to people on a regular basis about something that I’ve read, which isn’t something that I get to do regularly in my work. I also get to meet people I don’t normally meet, and that has been a really wonderful part of the experience – meeting people from all of different backgrounds and seeing how they approach the book. I’ve led discussions in a law firm, a city and a nonprofit, and I’ve been especially interested to see what happens when people don’t like a book. Do they keep coming to the discussions and making the most out of it? Or do they give up and quit coming?

And of course, I know how they feel. I’m approaching the books as a reader, just like they are. Some of the themes relate to my professional work – to the way we parent or approach family relationships. But for the most part, I’m reading and learning right alongside them, pondering different themes. I relate to books. I trust them, I feel so much for them and with them. They can break my heart. I get angry with them and frustrated with them just like any reader might.

What do you think reading and discussing texts – even texts they aren’t sure about – does for people at work?

Those moments and those discussions, when people really don’t like something they are reading while others love it – they give me the opportunity, as a facilitator, to ask people about how their willingness to approach a book reflects the way the way they approach people and tasks. I ask them to think about how they do this in their work. “Do I quit?” Or, “Do I follow through, even if I don’t like it right away?” In discussions, people often relate the books back to their personal lives. This opportunity moves them to think about their professional lives.

There are real benefits to sticking with a book or discussion you initially dislike. You certainly leave yourself open to the possibility that your perspective might change. And then, there’s the act of plodding through something that’s difficult, and that you don’t necessarily relate to at first. This is something we should do all the time – just as people. Sometimes things are stiff, awkward, uncomfortable, or new in a slightly unpleasant way.  People who want to continue with the reading and discussions see the potential for personal growth, or a deeper relationship with their coworkers. Even when you don’t like a reading, there’s still something to be had – especially if you’re curious.

Even when reading isn’t someone’s cup of tea, what do you make of the value of these interactions?

People bring so much to these discussions. The last group I worked with only had one hour, with a short story some of them didn’t like. Even so, they brought so many of their own narratives to the piece we were talking about. This was after the first of the year, and we were talking about resolutions of all sorts.

These discussions reveal how much we typically keep back, even from the colleagues with whom we spend much of our lives – how much we self edit. People approach the topics really warmly and personally. They bring up tough and heavy issues that they are ready and willing to share. The books allow them to do that – I don’t know that they would feel comfortable discussing in any other way. This is a common space for people to share themselves, when they otherwise couldn’t.

Image: Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VI, 1913, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia, [Public Domain] via

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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.