Getting folks on same page

Community: Officials ask the public to pick up the same book - and in Baltimore, it's Frederick Douglass' autobiography.

August 08, 2002|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

If you live in White Plains, N.Y., you should be at least halfway through The Pearl, by John Steinbeck.

In Georgia, it's time to finish up Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.

Canadian residents? You're supposed to be reading In the Skin of a Lion, unless you live in Vancouver, in which case you should also be reading The Jade Peony.

If the idea of your local, state or federal government guiding your choice of reading seems far-fetched - sort of the reverse of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which residents of Lafayette, Ind., were advised to start this month - look again.

Book clubs - once the domain of homemakers, co-workers and, more recently, empire-building talk-show hosts - are increasingly being led, backed or boosted by government.

From Boise, Idaho, to Buffalo, N.Y., from Bakersfield, Calif., to Brisbane, Australia - and, as of yesterday, in Baltimore, too - city officials are not just urging citizens to read, but suggesting that they all simultaneously read a specific book.

Baltimore kicked off its program yesterday afternoon when Mayor Martin O'Malley, with library director Carla D. Hayden at his side, announced his selection for the year: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.

"This is our `Baltimore Book' for 2002, and I'm asking everyone in the city ... to read this book," the mayor said, standing not far from where Frederick Douglass once lived as a slave.

At a Fells Point news conference attended by several state and local elected officials and Douglass' great-great-grandson, Frederick Douglass IV - O'Malley called the autobiography, which he read in the fourth grade, "probably the most important book I have read in my life."

"Read it, believe in yourself, believe in Baltimore and believe in what the future holds," he added, working in a pitch for another city project, the "Baltimore Believe" campaign.

Reading movement

With the announcement of the "Baltimore Book Project," the former "City That Reads" joined a rapidly growing list of cities that tell residents what to read.

There's "One Great Read, One Greater Lafayette" in Indiana; "One Book, One Chicago" in Illinois; and, in Memphis, "Same Book, Same Time."

And if you don't like your city's suggested book of the moment, you might check what some states recommend, through such programs as "If All Arkansas Read the Same Book," "What if All Kentucky Reads the Same Book," or "All Georgia Reading the Same Book."

Begun in Seattle

It may strike some as a little regimented, homogenized or even paternalistic. It may evoke images of Big Brother, lemmings or No. 2 pencils. But it's hardly nefarious - or at least wasn't meant to be.

What started as a modest proposal in Seattle in 1998 - designed to get the members of the community reading, talking with and relating to each other - has caught on quickly.

Similar programs were in place in at least 65 cities, counties and states by April of this year, according to the American Booksellers Association.

The read-alongs have been participated in by thousands, highly praised in most cities and rarely criticized. Who, after all, wants to pooh-pooh a program aimed at getting people to read?

Only a gutsy (or foolish) few have.

"I don't like these mass reading bees," Yale University's noted literature professor Harold Bloom was quoted as saying in The New Yorker. "It is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once."

Discord over choice

Bloom's comments came during the "One Book, One New York" campaign in New York City, which turned ugly before it got off the ground.

Fights erupted over the planned selection of Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker - mainly over whether it might offend Asian-Americans.

The disagreement led to a splinter group forming, which chose The Color of Water, by James McBride. So much for one New York.

While the program split the Big Apple, its intent is the opposite - to unify a city, county or state by giving residents a shared experience; to make it a place, or so the theory goes, where the hairdresser, waitress, college professor and construction worker can bump into each other and have something in common to talk about.

`Quite fabulous'

Chris Higashi and Nancy Pearl, two Seattle librarians, came up with the idea while investigating ways to build audiences for literature under a grant from the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds.

With a network of 100 book groups already supported by the library, they created a project that would tie all of them together, and rope in the rest of the citizenry as well: Everybody would read the same book, and the library would put together a series of discussions, events, and author appearances.

For the first year of "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book," it chose The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks.

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