“The Underground Railroad” and Why Our Books Should Be Used

There is nothing quite like moving to make you realize all your possessions are ridiculous.  I can say this since I just put all the contents of my life into boxes, loaded them into trucks, and carried them up two flights of stairs to a new home in a new city.  I know enough about the Marie Kondo magical theory of stuff to evaluate everything I had to move and wonder whether it was worth packing and hauling down the highway.  A good portion of my life got thrown or given away. By the end of the process, I was willing to give away anything if it meant I didn’t have to move it. A guy in a parking lot was pretty excited to get my collection of romantic comedies on dvd.  But then there were the books.

So many books. They were all bought with a side of hope, that I might become some smarter, happier, hotter version of myself.  My shelves are filled with ghosts of my better selves.  Every single book was bought with some anticipation that it might catalyze some change, or wisdom, or escape.  After all, research shows that this is exactly what happens when we read.  Google “reading 20 minutes a day” to see the 16 million reasons why and how we should all be reading books instead of Facebook feeds. But reading is a heavy hobby and I had enough to carry. Some of the books weren’t fit for the journey and had to be left behind. Since books mean more to me than 90s movies where women meet the love of their life by falling down in front of them, I decided to give them a better home than the dvds and take them to Used book stores.

I wandered the shelves for a while, resisting the urge to buy more books, to put in more boxes, to sell back the next time I move.  I started thinking what it really meant that all these books had been Used.  Did their old owners get smarter, happier, hotter?  Did new worlds open up for them and did old worlds make more sense?  Did they solve the mysteries, cook the recipes, study the facts, imagine the fiction?  Did all these words turn into anything?

I didn’t want the good words to go to waste, even if they were sold for a discount.

I believe the research, Googled or otherwise, affirming the value of reading books more than phones. But even more, I believe that the best words ought to be Used.

For the next few weeks, we’re going to put books to good use.  We’re going to try and get some words off the shelf and into your meetings and your work. I confess that the premise of this series is a trick.  I’m reading the books and passing along what might be useful to other people so they don’t have to read them.  But my secret hope, maybe even sinister hope, is that you’ll add these to your shelf too, and we can carry the burden together.

Since Colson Whitehead won a Pulitzer Prize this week for The Underground Railroad, his words could be incredibly Useful.  The story follows Cora, a woman born into slavery as a body but born into a freedom of spirit.  Whitehead fills the book with both vivid descriptions of the horrors of slavery and occasional re-imaginings of the reality of antebellum America. Here’s why this book mattered to me and why it matters for all our work:

-It never fails to amaze me how the right words can conjure up entire worlds that seem as real as the world you’re sitting in.  I kept forgetting that I was holding a mere book with pages and waiting for the blood and fury to cover my hands as I read. The world made its way from the paper to my imagination and I could hear the story crying out for relief and justice all along the way.

-Puzzles and mysteries done well can keep us invested in stories.  Whitehead reveals parts of the story slower than others but always to a satisfying end. Cora’s mother is a mere shadow haunting most of the story and the mystery of her life is somehow more powerful than the revelation of her real story.

-Fiction can contain multitudes of truths. Whitehead’s book famously takes liberties with history.  The network of the Underground Railroad is depicted as a working system of rails and trains.  He imagines North and South Carolina taking wildly different, but equally violent, approaches to managing the growing population of African Americans.  Something about this exploration of “What ifs” reminds us What Really Was and Is.

There are far more Useful aspects of Whitehead’s words.  It is, after all, a reflection of the very real tensions that still exist between the people who might have been owners back then and those who might have been owned. Listening to this story, in addition to helping us tell our own stories better, could help us all travel and move about the world with more care.

Rebel Pilgrim is a creative agency based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Rebel Pilgrim believes that story is the only way to spark change and create excitement for any business or product. Start converting your uninterested crowds into engaged clients using the power of storytelling.