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Smarty Pants Book Club: Journeys rooted in place

May 10, 2015

This must be the place.

That is the name of my favorite song by one of my favorite bands as well as the theme that Smarty Pants Book Club discussed at our most recent meeting. We all chose books with a strong setting and conversation focused on two main points: how reading about a place impacts your experience of visiting or remembering a place, and how details about a world, be it real or imaginary, are key to understanding a human story taking place in that world.

The first book we discussed was Exigency by Michael Siemsen. This science fiction novel tells the story of a group of scientists who make a one-way trip to a space station where they plan to study two different societies living on a nearby planet. After years of observation, the space station crashes into the planet and the scientists must learn how to survive in the place they have studied from afar. The portion of the book where the scientists are observers is rich with details about plants on the planet, modes of transportation used by the inhabitants, and environmental issues (such as face-eating worms). When the scientists in the story find themselves shifting from observers to participants, readers are well prepared to experience the planet with them. Storytelling is a big part of our job at Design Concepts, particularly in the Research department. It was inspiring to discuss how well Siemsen set up the environment in Exigency. When a storyteller can set a scene well, it is not only believable but enjoyable for the reader to go on a journey with him.

Walden and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe may not seem to have much in common on first glance, but both made us think about how escape or retreat from the world we know can enable a vision of a better future. Thoreau went to the woods on a spiritual and intellectual quest to reduce life to its essential elements. He physically retreated to the ponds and wilderness in order to get his mind to a place of clarity. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the Pevensie children have been sent away from London to escape the dangers of World War II. They find their way to Narnia from their country home and are soon embroiled in an epic battle on par with the one they tried to flee in their own world. Both Thoreau in his memoir and C.S. Lewis through his characters started their stories with an escape from the known world. At Design Concepts, we often help our clients “imagine a world” where the product, service or experience they have brought to us escapes the ordinary. Innovation, like great storytelling, works best with an active imagination as the engine. 

We often help our clients “imagine a world” where the product, service or experience they have brought to us escapes the ordinary.

The final book we discussed was Invisibles, which I read while traveling in Brazil this spring. It was my first time visiting the country and I thought it would be fun to read a book set in Rio de Janeiro. John, the protagonist in Invisibles, was born in Rio but moved to London as a young child. When he comes back at age 30, the foggy memories of his childhood whirl into a colorful reality. The characters in Invisibles all have different experiences of what Rio is like in their minds versus what it is like in their current reality.

Book clubbers talked a lot about how reading about a place allows you to have a shared human experience before you even go there. In the book, John had to wade through his memories and reconcile them with what he saw, heard and felt in the present. As a reader and traveler, I found delight in details that I remembered reading when I saw them in real life. The sidewalk along Copacabana Beach really is a beautiful mosaic pattern! This idea has a parallel in one of my favorite parts of our work at Design Concepts – seeing the excitement on project team’s faces when our industrial designers present renderings or the model shop rolls out a life-sized prototype. To picture something in your mind and then have the experience of seeing it before your eyes is truly a joy. 

— Written by Leah Ujda