Better Living Through Books
By Molly Petrilla
Imagine two people who work together but don’t really get along. One’s in sales, the other project management. They see the world differently. Sometimes they bicker. They’ve decided they have very little in common, even though they work on the same team.
It’s at this point that Ann Kowal Smith ’81, who’s been describing this pair of coworkers, starts talking about plastic-covered furniture and Books@Work, the nonprofit she founded. Smith’s organization brings literature and professors into offices. Small groups of employees read three books, roughly one a month, and a different college professor leads them through conversational seminars on each story.
The results, Smith says, are illustrated by plastic-covered furniture. Through Books@Work, a corporate team that included two employees with very different world views read a short story by Edwidge Danticat. In it, Danticat mentions plastic-covered furniture. It’s a small detail, but one that the sales director and project manager both pounced on. Suddenly they had common ground: they’d both grown up lounging on plastic-encased sofas.
“I don’t think there’s a literature person out there who would pick the plastic on the couch as an important element of the story,” Smith says. “But people find and bond over what’s relevant to them—and you can’t ever guess what that’s going to be.” She says the two employees now share “a deeper bond” and are reportedly working even more closely together, too.
Those surprising connections were exactly what Smith envisioned when she thought up Books@Work and piloted it in 2008. By then she’d worked as an attorney, a teacher, and a business strategist, and she had three advanced degrees herself: in law, in art history, and in organizational learning. “There was this trend in my life of thinking about how we learn, what we learn, and how we take what we learn and apply it to the next situation,” she says.
Smith turned Books@Work into a 501(c)(3) in 2011, made it her full-time job in 2012, and began hiring a small team and pursuing big companies, including Amazon. Now her organization has served 1,200 people at more than 20 workplaces.
Participants have read novels, short stories, nonfiction, plays—Smith says the only rule is that there has to be a narrative. A biology professor led one group through The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. A chemistry professor presented a series of environmental essays. Other instructors have come from creative writing, psychology, sociology, and of course English departments.
Nearly 250 unique titles have passed through the Books@Work system so far, including bestsellers (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time), Shakespearean classics (Othello), and short story collections (The Vintage Book of Latin American Short Stories). But Smith says the text itself is secondary. “It’s the entree,” she adds, “but the discussion is the part that’s valuable.”
The discussion is what leads people to bond over plastic-covered furniture. Or, in a group of middle-managers who worked in healthcare, it’s what turned Tana French’s detective novel Broken Harbor into a treatise on the relationship between managers and their employees.
When she first launched Books@Work, Smith focused on employees who hadn’t gone to college and hadn’t experienced a liberal arts seminar before. She started in 2008 with a group of food service workers who read Frankenstein, Pride and Prejudice, and The Things They Carried.
She says it was a success not only with the participants but with the professors, too. Those college-level instructors “discovered that when you teach a book to people who have life experience and they’re not in it for a grade, the conversations become richer, deeper, much more personal.”
Soon she realized the program’s real power was to unite people, so she opened it up to employees with varied education levels working across multiple departments. “It’s about giving each a voice and leveling the playing field so that they can talk to each other,” she says.
In the future, Smith hopes to get 100,000 people a year reading in Books@Work programs. She’s also working with researchers to study how the sessions affect employees’ productivity, morale, and office relationships. But she is ultimately interested in the impact of the program’s social mission, how Books@Work bridges educational divides and helps participants, and eventually their families, navigate beyond the workplace—at home and in the community.
“There’s incredible value in this open-ended learning experience where people get to bring more of themselves to work,” she adds. “And you bring the whole person when you have a conversation about literature”—plastic-covered couches and all.