Building a sense of community at work is more important than ever before. When faculty know they are working within a community of people who share a common purpose, their efforts become more meaningful, and their purpose becomes more defined. A strong workplace community is a place where each person is respected and heard, feedback and participation is welcomed and encouraged, and people gather to connect. We asked Gregory Plemmons, MD, Associate Professor of Clinical Pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Hospital Medicine, to reflect on his long-running book club and its role in creating and maintaining community within the Department of Pediatrics.
Sometime around 2001, Chris Greeley, one of my former Children's Hospital colleagues in General Pediatrics, wanted to start a book club. His idea was straightforward: extend an invitation to any attending physician or resident to see if anyone might be interested. We quickly made up a few basic ground rules. The selection would have to be in print and readily available in paperback (easier on a junior attending’s budget). Ideally, it would also be under 350 pages (easier on a junior attending’s work schedule). We would try to pick titles unrelated to medicine, or science, whenever we could. Most importantly, whoever would open up their house to host the gathering would be the one who got to pick out the book. For our very first selection, Greeley chose Robertson Davies’s The Cunning Man, a 469-page novel about a curmudgeonly old Canadian physician — thereby already breaking at least two of the rules. “More humanism and less science — that’s what medicine needs,” complains Dr. Hullah, as he reflects on a lifelong career in medicine. “But humanism is hard work and a lot of science is just Tinkertoy.”
I don’t know about all that. Science can be hard work. But these days, humanism seems even harder. It seems that there’s little opportunity to nourish and replenish the difficult work we all do as healers. Physician, heal thyself, we say, without ever providing an instruction manual. When we started in 2001, I underestimated the power of a simple invitation to connect people with other people, and a physical venue outside of the hospital for people to get to know each other socially. Two decades later, post-Amazon, post-Audible, here we are, still chugging, the Little Book Club That Could. Early on, given the nature of an academic program, I recognized we would always have members coming and going. When Greeley left Nashville and I assumed stewardship in 2007, I wanted to make sure our gatherings remained accessible to anyone who might be interested. Sometimes, when people hear the words "book club," they imagine some hoity-toity wine-and-cheese affair, perhaps some erudite discussion which triggers an instant flashback to that horrid eighth-grade English teacher who pimped you on symbolism and allegory (okay, confession here: sometimes there is wine and cheese). Admittedly, we’ve tackled some Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners, but we’ve also read Harry Potter. Danielle Steele. We’ve read a graphic novel about the civil rights movement (John Lewis’s March…read it!). We’ve read a play about a mother caring for her medically complex child (Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane…read it, too!). On occasion, we’ve been fortunate enough to have established authors make a guest appearance on video-chat. Every year has seemed to bring forth something new. The pandemic was obviously no exception.
Over the last two decades, when steady participants get ready to depart from Nashville, often they ask to be kept on the mailing list, just to “see what we’re reading.” I consider this the highest honor. In March 2020, when the world knew nothing but fear and we quickly shifted to virtual gatherings, I reached out to former participants to see if anyone was interested in a virtual group-read of Nemesis, Phillip Roth’s short novel about the polio epidemic. The response was overwhelming. Forever imprinted on my brain from that season will always be the grid-by-grid Zoom screen of former “alumni” from as far away as Philadelphia and Hawaii. "Only connect," E.M. Forster urged us in Howards End, a novel published more than a century ago. Ironically, in an era in which, on the surface, seems more hyperconnected than ever, his advice seems more timely and relevant than ever, in this strange age of isolation. More than anything else, great writing (and great book clubs) let us know we’re never truly alone.
If you are interested in being added to the book club mailing list, email Dr. Plemmons at email@example.com.