Why a page-turner may do more for your social work practice than a textbook

Matt Bee says he has found some of his most helpful practice insights from novels and popular non-fiction, rather than academic tracts

By Matt Bee

Who doesn’t love a good book? I certainly do, and my bedside cabinet is stacked with novels, biographies and bestsellers. Finding the time to read them can be difficult though. A few stolen moments on a lunch break is sometimes all I have, or late at night in the dying embers of the day, exhausted and fighting to keep my eyelids open.

Writers of social work literature should bear this in mind. If you write for your audience, and your audience has been chained to a desk all day, their ability to digest densely packed material on an evening is minimal. Past 11pm, and the term ‘paradigm shift’ alone is enough to send me off to sleep.

Reading about work feels too much like…work”

Academically minded books have for years been a source of frustration for me. Keen to understand my profession better I’ve bought them by the armful, but whilst I’ve hurried through all the other books on my shelves, these ones – with their dull pastel shade covers and lengthy titles – have remained resolutely untouched.

And I feel bad about that. There’s no question these texts are thoroughly researched, packed with insights that could transform my understanding of my profession. But reading about work just feels too much like… work.

A fascinating account of risk

Contrast this to Dan Gardner’s excellent 2008 book Risk – The Science and Politics of Fear. Clearly aimed at the mainstream, it gives a fascinating account of how we perceive risk. This might not sound specialised enough to be any use to the social worker. But consider a phenomenon called group polarisation. Studies have consistently shown that when we assess risk as part of a group, we’re likely to judge it more severely than if we’d completed the exercise alone.

It transpires that if just one person in a group assesses a risk as severe, then very few people will dare contradict them for fear of being seen as soft or having missed something. It’s much easier to fall into agreement. But what happens after that is even more interesting – the person who originally judged the risk as severe, on seeing the agreement of others, will then ratchet their horror up a level to preserve the validity of their view. Other members of the group will then agree with them further, only to find the fear factor raised once again by someone else. Soon it becomes a competition to see who can identify the worst case scenario and who can be most horrified by it. This neatly summaries many safeguarding meetings I’ve attended.

Dan Gardner’s book is jam-packed with other intriguing observations, but sharing them here wouldn’t leave me room to mention Jon Ronson’s equally compelling book, The Psychopath Test.


When I first read this, I happened to work in a forensic unit with several young men who’d been assessed as psychopaths. But in my years working there, no-one – no psychiatrist, research paper, academic book or training day – had managed to explain psychopathy so clearly. I was engrossed. On holiday in the Lakes, I devoured the book.

Around the same time, I also read Alain De Botton’s photo-journalism book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, in which the modern philosopher studies ten different professions. None of them are social work, but all tell the reader something about our relationship with our jobs and how they form part of our identity.

Tom Hodgkinson’s How to be Idle from 2004 does much the same thing whilst, at the same time, campaigning for us all to work a little less. He cites Nietzche who, in 1882, witnessed with growing despair the work ethic seeping into US culture and ‘the breathless pace with which they work.’ Sound familiar?

Application to social work

The fact is that a lot of books that don’t seem applicable to our roles, when you get down to read them, are. And this isn’t just true of non-fiction. The lead character in The Rosie Project by Graeme Simison is a man with Asperger’s. An autistic child stars in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Alzheimer’s features in The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks, but it’s Terry Pratchett who suffered it first-hand and recorded it on his blog. Meanwhile, ageing, mental illness, alcoholism, imprisonment, bereavement and loneliness are all covered by Alan Bennett in Talking Heads. And if you want to get even more literary than that, Charles Dickens wrote extensively about social injustice and poverty; Shakespeare was a great portrayer of madness.

All these works are easy to read (perhaps, with the exception of Shakespeare), cheap, and available from your nearest bookstore. But we don’t give them the credit they deserve. Academic text books are far more respected, but if yours, like mine, remain on the shelf it’s not the end of the world. There’s a lot of other great, relevant literature out there – books you can still read when you haven’t really got the time.

Matt Bee is a social worker and freelance writer, based in the North East of England. 

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One Response to Why a page-turner may do more for your social work practice than a textbook

  1. Stuart March 2, 2016 at 9:03 am #

    I can’t stand ‘story books’ but am intrigued by some of the other titles Matt referred to & will follow them up so well done!

    Maybe Community Care should invite readers to submit not a list of titles but a decent sized article about one ‘academic’ but not social work specific book and what they’ve learned from it that helped them be a better social worker.

    Scope there I thnnk for a ‘book of the month’ feature.