• February 2012

When It Comes to Managing Well, Escape to Another World

By Alice Waagen, PhD
President and Founder
Workforce Learning

Good managers know when to take a break—and when to encourage their staff members to do so. One great way to do this, and to educate your mind, warm your heart, and feed your soul, is to pick up a good book.

In fact, it’s a delightful diversion that I indulge in all too infrequently. I’ll drive myself over to the public library and wander the stacks until a single book calls my name.

It’s always a random book, nothing that I am hunting for or know that I need to read. It never ceases to amaze me that, more often than not, the book my fingers find is exactly the perfect book that teaches me something that I need to learn.

Case in Point

I experienced the joy of serendipitous reading on a recent rainy day in January. I was splendidly sequestered in the library between business meetings when my eyes landed on Books: A Memoir, by Larry McMurtry.

Imagine: A book about books in a library. It was too much of a trifecta to ignore.

McMurtry’s name should be familiar to any reader or movie-watcher.

His first blockbuster was Lonesome Dove, which won him a Pulitzer Prize. Other books-to-movies of his include Terms of Endearment and The Last Picture Show.

Recently, he co-wrote the screenplay for that tearjerker, Brokeback Mountain. In all, he has authored more than 28 books and 30 screenplays.

Like his other stories that tell a poignant tale of the hero’s life, “Books” is a memoir recalling how his love of books has shaped his life.

McMurtry opens this memoir with the astonishing revelation that his early years on his father’s cattle ranch in Texas were book-free.

Fortunately, a cousin soon to depart for service in World War II brought him a box of books before being deployed. His subsequent consumption of these 19 books marked McMurtry’s forever as a lover of reading and a collector of books.

Each chapter in “Books” is more an essay than a lengthy description—and that’s why I loved it. As I read “Books,” I felt like I was experiencing a time when the lowly book meant so much more to people than it does today. McMurtry’s prose describes a wonderful panoply of characters and scenarios—all about the pursuit and acquisition of books. How fabulous!

For me, the most moving musings in “Books” comes near the end.

That’s when McMurtry acknowledges that our modern life has little place for the pursuit and enjoyment of secondhand books. He enumerates the frequent times that large, long-standing secondhand bookstores have shuttered their doors and notes the rise of online purveyors like Amazon and e-books as their replacement.

But, rather than lapsing into a predictable diatribe against all things virtual, McMurtry poses a more sobering observation: E-books and virtual bookstores, although they may kill the joy of physically handling books, keep and promote the beauty of reading itself.

He ponders: What does [the demise of the secondhand bookshop] say about the most important factor of all, when it comes to books: reading? Book-selling will never quite expire until reading expires first. The secondhand book business, both as a trade and as a subculture, has existed for centuries because people want to read, and the assumption book dealers work on is that people will always want to read.

But is it enough?

Seeing the changes that have occurred in the last few years, I am not so sure. Civilization can probably adjust to the loss of the secondhand book trade, though I don’t think it’s really likely to have to.

Can it, though, survive the loss of reading? That is a tougher question to have an answer for—and a very important one to investigate.

Yes, the world of book collecting and selling is evolving into something new. Self-publishing and online retail have irrevocably altered the world McMurtry so aptly narrates in “Books.”

But if we can still read, in whatever form it takes, we will retain the grand civilizing force McMurtry reveals to us in his enchanting memoir.

Questions, thoughts, ideas? Don’t hesitate to contact me by email at alice@workforcelearning.com.


About Alice Waagen

Alice Waagen, PhD, is president and founder of Workforce Learning LLC, a leadership development company she founded in 1997.

In the past five years alone, more than 138 leaders from 32 organizations have graduated from Waagen’s unique leadership-development workshop series.

Learn more about Waagen’s work at www.workforcelearning.com.

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