Visiting Different Worlds in Stories

Stories open up another world: Characters are described in a way that makes you feel like you live next door to them. Scenes are imagined in a way that let you temporarily leave the couch or chair you’re sitting in. 

There are many solid lists out there on what to read as a market researcher and strategist. Once that foundation is laid, one of the best ways to get better at work is to read fiction — stories that take you to another place and allow you to see the world from a different perspective. 

Author Neil Gaiman sums up the many benefits of fiction better than I could in a speech from a few years ago. Well-written stories are compelling, memorable, and force a re-evaluation of one’s perspective. They are key to building creativity muscles. As Martin Weigel writes, fiction also helps us expand our capacity to empathize

I feel lucky to have read a few good stories over the last few months. Here are some key ideas that jumped out from each. 

The One and Only Ivan 

I recently read this book aloud to my elementary-aged kids, and was completely choked up by the end of it. My children find this highly entertaining. In my defense, struggling to read the last few pages is a true sign of a great story.

This award-winning book is from the perspective of a gorilla narrator. He uses short sentences. And he has profound ideas about humans, freedom, and leadership. Ivan lives at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. His comfortable world is upended when he meets Ruby, a young elephant also brought to the mall to live in the "domain" next to Ivan. 

Ivan on patience… 

“I’ve learned to understand human words over the years, but understanding human speech is not the same as understanding humans. Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say. It took me some time to recognize all those human sounds, to weave words into things. But I was patient. Patient is a useful way to be when you’re an ape. Gorillas are as patient as stones. Humans, not so much.” 

On the interplay between self-doubt and self-confidence as Ivan thinks about the possibility of meeting other gorillas… 

"'Do you think the other gorillas will like you?' Ruby asks. 'I’m a silverback, Ruby. A leader.' I pull back my shoulders and hold my head high. 'They don’t have to like me. They have to respect me.' Even as I tell her this, I wonder if I can ever command their respect. I haven’t had much practice being a real gorilla, much less a silverback." 

Go Set a Watchman

From the moment it was released, this book was polarizing as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. There were times when it felt like I was trudging through it due to a loose plot, but in the end the extra layers added to Scout's character made the read worthwhile. Scout returns home and struggles to find her place as an adult in Maycomb, Alabama.

On Scout's quest for empathy with her aunt… 

"You are fascinated with yourself. You will say anything that occurs to you, but what I can’t understand are the things that do occur to you. I should like to take your head apart, put a fact in it, and watch it go its way through the runnels of your brain until it comes out of your mouth."

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

This was another read-aloud to my kids. The dialogue between the young, whip-smart main character Claudia, and the 82-year-old narrator Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is some of the best back-and-forth I’ve read in a children’s book. Mrs. Frankweiler holds the key to solving the mystery of the entire book, but waffles on whether or not to letting Claudia and her brother in on that secret.

On the importance of slowing down to let the creative process work… 

"Claudia said, 'But, Mrs. Frankweiler, you should want to learn one new thing every day. We did even at the museum.' 'No,' I answered, 'I don’t agree with that. I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.'" 

Josh Carlton is the Founder of 500THz, a boutique market research firm that delights in using creativity to solve marketing problems. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This post also appears on LinkedIn

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