Go ahead, crack the spine. Reading is good for you… and your business

Pick a publication — The New York Times, Washington Post, New Yorker, Book Riot, GeekWire, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Wall Street Journal — and you’ll find a “Best of” list for books published in 2016 or endorsements for novels being prepped for release.  As a Twitter follower of all things books-related, the plethora of lists being posted this year at first seemed silly. Then I did a little research.

Taking the long view, I realize these publications aren’t filling their features pages with evergreen stories because half their staff was on vacation for the holidays. These publications have been looking out for our best interest.  It turns out, reading is more than introvert merrymaking or unproductive idleness.

Studies published last year in Yale University’s journal of Social Science & Medicine and the University of Toronto’s Trends in Cognitive Sciences reveal reading books could extend one’s lifespan by 2 years and reading fiction, specifically, could increase empathy. Of course, this doesn’t mean reading a page here and there is going to improve your life. Researchers reported lifespan increases in those who read at least 3.5 hours a week.

Why is empathy important? In general, empathy improves communication in boardrooms, on our city streets and at dining room tables. According to a Businesssolver study, employees who believe they work for empathetic employers are more likely to work longer hours, accept lower pay and stay with a company. However, while 60 percent of CEOs view their companies as empathetic, only 25 percent of employees agree.

With that in mind, perhaps you should make this the year you commit to reading that stack at your bedside or perusing the racks at your local independent bookstore. No; there’s no need to schlep through James Joyce’s Ulysses or race through J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series if those sorts of novels don’t appeal to you. Find something that suits your personality, your current state of mind or mimics (maybe even opposes) your point of view.

Perhaps this is the year you join a book club, get recommendations your local independent bookseller or participate in a Goodreads.com reading challenge, the site offers recommendations based on your previous books. Just read. Learn something. Grow.

Need more suggestions? Quartz has some tips to get you started.

Lightning-rod themes stoke new Colson Whitehead and Jodi Picoult novels

Who are you when you wake up in the morning to a new day full of dread, dreams and doldrums? When you greet someone for the first time? With friends or on the job? When they tell you today is your last day? When you become an empty-nester? When you realize you’ll never have children? When they won’t serve you at the restaurant and follow you around the store?

ABC sitcoms “Black-ish” and “Modern Family” and the FBI drama “Quantico” address these issues weekly. The English rock band The Who asked the question in its 1978 hit. Philosophers, statisticians, neuroscientists, behavioral economists and people made famous just for sharing their opinions ask this question every day via TedTalks. Henry Louis Gates, through his PBS program “Finding Your Roots,” helps celebrities identify themselves by teaching them their histories.

This fall, in their new novels “The Underground Railroad” (Doubleday, Sept. 13, 2016) and “Small Great Things” (Ballantine Books, Oct. 11, 2016) authors Colson Whitehead, who’s black, and Jodi Picoult, who is white, address the concept of identity in painfully convincing stories focused on race and racial injustice.

Despite the racial differences between authors, their novels complement one another.

Freedom minded in the Cotton Era

Whitehead takes a horrific past, when cotton (not oil) determined international business dealings, and cleverly reimagines it. At this time (before Chinese workers are paid low wages to assemble high-demand technology), Africans were rounded up and shipped to parts of the world that needed cheap, i.e. free, labor. For generations, slaves were bred and worked in the fields like livestock and slaughtered in broad daylight.

"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead book cover

From slave catchers like Whitehead’s Ridgeway, a blacksmith’s son, to abolitionists at work behind the scenes, slaves, and escapees, the author uses wit and downright good writing to inform with his own ingenious slave narrative, debunk the slave mythology that says Africans were given better lives and address notions of self-identification in his antebellum “The Underground Railroad”.

Cora’s grandmother knew what it meant to live free until whites captured her, put her in chains, and sold her like chattel. She was no longer a young woman in Africa, she was the property of America. Cora then was a slave because she was born into the labor of the fields, the querulous and competitive slave community, and the insistence that this was her lot in life. Not soon enough, Cora meets Caesar, who may be physically enslaved but keeps his mind on liberty. He is a freeman toiling alongside slaves, living in slaves’ quarters.

Caesar knows he’s free to leave the plantation, though he must do it by cover of darkness with the assistance of an abolitionist and with the promise that if Caesar is caught he will be publicly tortured and inhumanely slaughtered. With the help of the Underground Railroad, a literal railroad created to convey escaped slaves to better lives, Cora and Caesar seek new identities as educated individuals unhindered from dreaming and fulfilling their dreams.

Whitehead’s magnificent, powerful approach so effectively transports readers as to make them briefly wonder if his fictional trains and representations of South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana are authentic, and, at times, make us question if portions of the novel could be set in present times.  For instance, life in South Carolina with housing and jobs’ programs and educational and health care systems (evocative of current day social programs) seems easy and decent until Cora uncovers signs that the state is performing non-consensual sterilization (reminiscent of modern-day eugenics) on its Negro residents. Coupled with a new work environment that is suggestive of her old life, she begins to question her identity. Is she a freewoman,  damaged goods, or a daughter once loved? Can she be something else, somewhere else?

Talent vs. race"Small Great Things" by Jodi Picoult book cover

Picoult’s “Small Great Things” deals with the disturbing present, a time when it seems justice isn’t being served in the courts but on the streets where black men fear for their lives and police officers fear vigilantes. When enemies operate under cover of darkness. The novel is intriguing though painfully revelatory: We live in tricky times.

Clearly, Picoult did extensive research in writing “Small Great Things” by interviewing a host of African-American women and reformed skinheads and by examining her own belief system. The only questionable character here is Picoult’s Adisa. She is stereotypical at best. Still, using three first-person accounts, Picoult laudably rummages deep into the hearts and lives of characters with dissimilar lifestyles and beliefs: Turk, a father, husband and white supremacist; Kennedy, the white attorney who grapples with her own beliefs; and Ruth.

By age five, Ruth knows what she wants to be, needs to be a nurse. She attends the right schools, has a family, and lives out her dream as a labor and delivery nurse for twenty years until the actions of white supremacist parents threaten her lifestyle.  The skinheads announce they do not want an African American touching their child; so a supervisor informs Ruth, who has built her life around providing love and stellar care, and notes the new directive in the newborn’s chart.  Soon though, Ruth is left alone with the baby who ends up in crisis.

The family questions Ruth’s action, and inaction, and Ruth is suspended, no longer able to practice nursing. Is she really being targeted because of her race when she’s done everything right? If she’s not a nurse, who is she? A failed mom? She attended the right schools, marries before starting a family, raises her son to be college-mind, and performs her job with love and professionalism. Perhaps she’s been defining herself incorrectly. Perhaps she’s just black.

At one point in the author’s passionately told “Small Great Things,” a character asks citizens who they are. How would you define yourself? In singular terms? (I am a man.) Or using manifold interconnecting parts? (I am a Detroit-based writer who is nothing without her job.) Who are you?

© Copyright Leslie Green and Wildemere Publishing LLC. 2016

IDENTITY: a series

Scott Norman wearing a uniform and holding a gun in "The Wars of Other Men" by Mike Zawacki.Story 1: Two artists uncomfortable with the “actor” label share their views on identity because they are both so much more.

This story: Jodi Picoult  and Colson Whitehead discussed their novels  at Book Expo America in May 2016. Read about Whitehead’s journey in Publisher’s Weekly. See the BEA Picoult interview on YouTube.

Paintings by Jay AsquiniStory 3: Years after suffering a debilitating accident, a photographer finds new passion.

Story 4: Life, not production, makes an artist.

Coming soon: The advent of digital photography forces a difficult decision.

We’d love to know your views. Comment below…

The Truth lies in Oceania: “1984” and “The X-Files”

Happy happenstance is when you complete “1984” and catch the first two episodes of “The X-Files” reboot in the same week. Think about them too long, though, and a sickly feeling might overcome you.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in “The X-Files.” Credit Ed Araquel/Fox

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in “The X-Files.”
Credit Ed Araquel/Fox

Reading George Orwell’s tale of a government’s all-consuming need to meddle destructively with humankind and the lengths we would go to make them stop was me fulfilling the first Shelf Improvement1 book challenge of 2016. The task was to reread a classic book (something 50 years old or older) that you read in school. Orwell wrote “1984” in 1949. I first read it nearly 35 years later.

Nineteen eighty-four

Reading “The X-Files?” I did that for the aliens, growths, creepy siblings and dry, subtle humor alluding to the many years that have passed since season 9 aired to a world without — for the most part — social media. Yes, creator Chris Carter’s story of FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigating strange phenomena successfully managed nine long seasons without a hashtag. In part, the show’s success stems from Carter’s mission statement, “It’s only as scary as it is believable.”

According to John Ross of Caritas St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston, Orwell’s success in making “1984” believable in part had to do with his health. In 2005, Ross published a study in m.LiveScience.com asserting Orwell’s bouts of bacterial pneumonia, dengue fever and tuberculosis “made him a better and more empathetic writer, in that his sense of human suffering made his writing more universal.”2

Did Orwell’s ill health make his work predictive as well as well as universal? Is “X-Files” believable because it skirts close to the realm of possibility?

Many argue whether art imitates life or life art, and I don’t care to rehash that fight. I do know, however, that watching what’s happening worldwide with governments and technology (who’s listening to whom?), watching “The X-Files” and rereading “1984” make it clear that conspiracy theorists aren’t to be taken lightly.

“X-Files” special agent Mulder (played by David Duchovny) reinforces that thought when he rants that aliens aren’t the problem, but sketchy humans who misuse nano-, bio- and other technology are the problem. He and an Alex Jones-like character (played by Joel McHale) cite FEMA concentration camps, weather control and a collection of additional questionable actions that conspiracy theorists have proven true as proof that the public indeed is being manipulated. The question is by whom? The government? Well, that’s a big unwieldy entity. The unknown conspirator, like Big Brother, seeks to use innovative minds to destroy a way of life and control the future.


Side note: I am a tech geek… with an English degree. I am far from technologically savvy; however, I am curious. I write news stories and fiction about tech; and I believe there are some brilliant people using technology, like virtual reality headsets for terminally ill children, for positive transformation or inspiration. That said, I believe technology can be effective without being invasive.


In “1984,” everyone has a telescreen. Those on the other end of the telescreens regulate every portion of the collective lives, what they said and did as well as what they might say or do.

“Always eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or bed- no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters in your skull.” George Orwell, “1984”

A few years ago, “Dateline NBC,” “20/20” or one of the other be-scared-be-very-very-scared TV news magazines revealed the ease in which hackers can access an individual’s computer to listen and watch them unawares through the PC’s camera.

Nowadays, we purposefully allow invasive technology into our homes — to make life simpler. On the low end of the spectrum (I think), my television learned what time I most frequently turn it on; so, according the Sony manual, it turns on faster during those times.  Early last year, TechCrunch.com reported on the privacy statement associated with Samsung’s “smart,” voice command-enabled TV. 3 According to the statement, Samsung might collect what users were saying when the TV was listening (even if it wasn’t a direct command), transcribe that information and send it to a third party… to improve service.

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” George Orwell, “1984”

For a while, there was some hoopla in the news about Samsung’s statement. Eventually, the company apologized, and then the news faded away without word of people destroying their televisions or of the market seizing from the dearth in purchases. Life went on. We accepted tech’s new role.

A few days ago, I called a bank and its telephone artificial intelligence informed me I needed to set up a voice-recognition password to use the service. For some reason (baaaa), I did. I repeated a phrase three or four times until the computer recognized and possessed a record of my voice.

Today, a source copied “Amy” on an email, requesting “she” send us a meeting invite. Shortly afterward, I got an invite from Amy Ingram, an artificial intelligence service, which negotiated times and days until we came to an agreement on when we would meet.4

Simpler? Maybe. Better?

The book and television episodes were entertaining and enlightening; but the more I reflect, the more I realize they are downright scary visions of our possible futures. Think about it too long and I can’t help but want to put a beer bottle on my doorknob.5

So what do we do? Toss our TVs, laptops and tablets on the trash heap? Swap our smartphones for landlines — if they still install them in your town?  Dump our everything-enabled cars for a Deuce and a Quarter — if you can find one that hasn’t been “upgraded”? I mean, I love my Sirius and rear-view screen, which was developed (at least in part) to decrease the number of accidental deaths and injuries.

A friend and former news colleague, Gary, is notorious for restoring what a group of us call “serial-killer” cars. Steel monstrosities that take a half a city block when parked. Currently, he is driving a 1979 Buick Electra 225 with original parts (all working) and an interior that’s just a few swatches away from DayGlo green. Gary has a plan to outwit all the connected sheep like me.  When all other vehicles like choreographed swimmers are traveling down the highway — synced with the road, traffic lights, each other and the mothership — he’s going to cruise. He will barrel through traffic; because as, he put it, the tech-enabled cars are going to part like the sea when they predict (wrongly) he’s going to hit them if they don’t.

But would he ever leave his location-enabled cellphone and Facebook friends behind? Unlikely. Could he outrun the neighbor’s drone? The Electra is too easy to spot. And what about his kids, should he ever have them? Will he disabuse them of the thought that visiting a Disney park is an American-given right just because of the “magical” wristbands that “enhance” the Disney experience (and send use data back to the company)? 6 Don’t count on it.

The point is this: Fiction or not, “The X-Files” is a good reminder that we need to speak up and speak out when we know the creep (illegal human experiments7) and conspiratorial factor of industrial, medical and whateverical technology is too high. Otherwise, it won’t be long before we are living in a more extreme version of Orwell’s Oceania with Blade Runners as Thought Police.

“Replicants are like any other machine – they’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.” “Blade Runner”8

1 Shelf Improvement: Take the Classics Challenge.
2 http://m.livescience.com/425-study-george-orwell-illnesses-influenced-1984.html
3 http://techcrunch.com/2015/02/08/telescreen/
4 https://x.ai/
5 “Conspiracy Theory”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adYGUai7PNc
6 https://hbr.org/2016/01/customer-tracking-technology-can-work-without-being-creepy
7 http://freebeacon.com/politics/company-of-major-cap-donor-conducted-deadly-illegal-human-experiments/
8 “Blade Runner”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_9rhPDLHWk