Summer reads: where fiction and reality meet we learn to wonder with empathy

Literature has the power to do what we see as our vision at IIAB: It can change conversations.

Where fiction and reality meet, we are enabled to go a little deeper into some of the larger themes in our lives, such as love, existence, and identity. My recommendations for summer reading will therefore also be a little different this year. It will not be the traditional guide to the newest books in management and organisational development. Instead, it will be a recommendation of the best novels I have read this year. Science proves that we become more empathetic by reading fiction and I think that's exactly what the world and our organisations need — now and in the future.

1) “The World of Yesterday” by Stefan Zweig — a reminder of the fragility of the European culture.

... if you want inspiration for a new vision for Europe.

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) is an Austrian author who you might know from "A Game of Chess". Zweig’s "The World of Yesterday" from 1942 is a shockingly relevant read on European identity and a Europe in disintegration. In it he describes the development of society from a cultural angle during the early 1900s before World War II, when he committed suicide with his wife in exile in Brazil. The book provides an introduction to all the elements that bind us together in our cultural identity and is a huge tribute to a Europe that has disappeared. It is also a reminder to all of us of the fragility of culture — even in the present. “The World of Yesterday” is more relevant than ever and the literary autobiography ends on the resonating words: "and only the man who has experienced both light and darkness, war and peace, rises and falls, only that man has truly lived", a sentence that can be of comfort to those who experience threats and great uncertainty right now.

2) “On the Calculation of Volume” by Solvej Balle - when time breaks down, life appears more clearly.

...if you want to get "mind fucked".

Do you ever feel like your days are all similar, or the same even? Solvej Balle has taken this feeling to its extreme in her work "On the Calculation of Volume", in which the main character Tara experiences that time breaks; she wakes up to the same November 18 as the day before. She tries to involve her husband in her experience, but that does not change the fact that the more time passes, the greater the distance becomes. After a while, she moves into another room in their house and then she heads out into the world. Balle’s work comes in 7 volumes, 3 of which have been published. It may sound heavy, but we are in the genre of speculative fiction here and our main character Tara is on a journey that is both existential, philosophical and at times scary. An experience familiar to those who saw the film Groundhog Day, yet Solvej Balle intelligently turns into a true delirium. Gradually obsessed with the desire for a world where time passes, Tara longs to find the door leading out of that eighteenth of November. Get ready, this one is highly recommended.  

"Where fiction and reality meet, we are enabled to go a little deeper into some of the larger themes in our lives, such as love, existence, and identity."

3) Beloved by Toni Morrison — about an inhuman era in our cultural history.

... if you want to deepen your empathy with race issues.

The classic novel Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison is one of the books that has made the biggest impression on me this year. Her death a couple of years ago gave an impulse to delve into her writing, which is deeply relevant to understanding why and how racial issues still plague our world. Beloved is about the black woman Sethe, an escaped slave, in her mid-30s, who has risked her life for freedom. She has lost her husband, buried a child (whom she herself has killed) and lives in a small house in Ohio with her daughter and mother-in-law. At some point, a ghost named Beloved comes and lives with them. She is the killed child, in the form of a young woman in flesh and blood, who seeks revenge. Beloved takes place in an American reality where black people were measured, numbered, and forced to give up their breast milk to other people's children. A world in which you did not know who your mother was in the line of turned backs in the field, and where you were forcefully put on iron muzzles or bits from time to time. Toni Morrison herself has said of Beloved that she wanted the reader to experience being trapped in the novel, giving a sense of the brutal and relentless ways the African slaves were constantly chased and were disconnected from what they came from and loved. To love nothing is the only way to survive in such a world and it is incomprehensible that people have been treated this way. For me, there is a before and after reading Beloved.

4) “The Years” by Annie Erneaux — about the 'we' in a woman's lived life.

... if you want to see how we all are a "we" and are shaped by our time.

The French novelist Annie Erneaux has had a bit of a breakthrough in Denmark lately and it was also about time — she is now 81 years old. Her novel “The Years” (2007) is an autobiography and deals with Erneaux’s life in France throughout the years 1940-2017. It may not sound so original, but it actually is. In the book, she makes the reader part of the “we” or “us” that tells the story by writing in extraordinarily sober fashion about herself as a female bodily container for a life to be lead. You are invited in and thereby get the feeling that you are writing history with her by reading on.
The years move through childhood, to the girl's perception that there is a special female 'we' to which she belongs. Later ‘we’ becomes a family as Annie becomes an adult, married, mother and later divorced. Like no other, Erneaux weaves the intimate and the general into one tapestry of life.

“The years” is a tribute, and a commitment, to people and communities losing — and losing against time — for whom that same community is the only remedy against loss. And so, on almost every page there is a sociological angle on the experiences of ‘us’, through the vehicle of her one-woman life. Annie Ernaux goes beyond what we can imagine right now and here. She describes so clearly how our time affects our lives, that I now look back on my time as a mother of small children in a whole new way. It suddenly became clearer how my experiences were tied up in a particular time that limits our experiences and identity.

5) Burning Questions by Margaret Atwood.

... if you want to be reminded to keep asking the bigger questions in life.

Burning Questions is no fiction, but its timeliness meant that it had to get on the list. Margaret Atwood is known for "A Handmaid’s Tale", the books so eerily relevant when it comes to the things that are happening in the US right now regarding women's right to their own bodies. Burning Questions is a collection of Atwood’s essays published this spring, in which she comes around many different types of questions, such as: Why do people everywhere, in all cultures, tell stories? How much of yourself can you give away without evaporating? And What do zombies have to do with authoritarianism? Whether you want answers to these questions or seek for inspiration to ask your own burning questions, you are in excellent company with Atwood this summer.

IIAB's core business has always been to ask questions and therefore it was obvious to close off my recommendations with this one. We all have the ability to wonder, and it is often in our ability to wonder that new ideas and visions can arise.

I wish you all a good summer with time for reading, wondering and all the other important things in life.