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The Day I Read a Book

Posted Jan 11 2012 2:14pm

There’s a wonderful old song by Jimmy Durante about the pleasures of reading. It goes like this:

Hey, I read a book!

I’ll never forget the day I read a book.
It was contagious, seventy pages.
There were pictures here and there,
So it wasn’t hard to bear,
The day I read a book.
It’s a shame I don’t recall the name of the book.
It wasn’t a history. I know because it had no plot.
It wasn’t a mystery, because nobody there got shot.
The day I read a book ? I can’t remember when,
But one o’ these days, I’m gonna do it again.

I was reminded of that over the holidays when I did just that; I read a book.

Now, there shouldn’t be anything wonderful or marvelous or unusual about reading a book, people do it every day. But I hardly ever seem to have the time to sit down and read a book cover to cover. Every day I read a couple of newspapers, scan several news websites and read a few political blogs. Each week I read several news or current affairs magazines. But read a book? Who has the time.

That’s why it was so delicious to have the time to put all those newspapers and magazines aside for a few days and open a good book (an anthology of Graham Green’s work including “The Heart of the Matter” – if you must know). It was a real treat to get lost in the world that the author created, to get inside the characters and try to understand their motivations and actions. I even enjoyed the little moments when I felt frustrated because I was going to have to stop reading so I could go and do something else fun!

Whenever I read a good book I’m always reminded at just how powerful words are, and how beautiful they can be. Too often in my work the words I write have to take on a very specific role and that’s merely to explain something complex or communicate something important. What little opportunity there is for flare or flourish or – god forbid – humor is quickly snuffed out by the legions of others who then have to approve and edit the work. The end product is frequently very different from the original one – sucked dry of any imagination or creativity and turned instead into a dry – albeit accurate – statement.

But good writing does more than that. It also reminds me that often we fall into a rut when writing, relying on the same words or phrases to explain or describe something instead of searching for some new way of telling the same story. That routine way of working makes for an efficient way of writing but not always for an elegant or the most effective way. It’s a shortcut but one that can produce a less-than-memorable end result.

Maybe it’s unrealistic to think about workplace communications and literature in the same way. One is all about efficiency and directness, and is often governed by legal requirements about what you can and, perhaps even more importantly, what you cannot say. The other is about creating new worlds, or helping you see your world in a different way. One is all about imagination. The other all too often shaped by a lack of it.

But I don’t accept that business writing has to be soulless. On the contrary, I think making it dull and turgid and leaden only makes it all the more likely that no one will read it or, if they do, that no one will understand or care what it’s about. To reach people, to get them to pay attention, you have to engage them, you have to entertain them before you can ever hope to really inform them.  That doesn’t mean that a memo from the boss to all the staff has to be done as a limerick (though that is not a bad idea come to think of it!) or that the annual report can be done in iambic pentameter as a dramatic play. But it does mean that they can be lively and engaging and still informative.

No one ever says their goal in life is to write ‘the great American memo’ but as most of us are more likely to write a memo than a novel, and certainly much more likely to read one then maybe it’s time to change the way we think about how we write at work and make it something someone actually wants to read rather than simply hitting the ‘delete’ button as soon as they see who its from.

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