Collective reading is alive and well in the 2000s — thanks to large-scale online book clubs (think “One Book, One Twitter,” for example) and also to community “One City, One Book” programs which encourage an entire metropolis to read the same book at the same time.
What are cities reading this year? Here are the 2011 picks of five participating cities — all of them apparently drawn to books with strong cultural themes. – Nora Dunne, Monitor contributor
1. Seattle: “Little Bee,” by Chris Cleave
The northwest metropolis pioneered the “One Book” movement back in 1998 with Russell Banks’ “The Sweet Hereafter.” In the decade following, the program — in which community members read and discuss the same book — inspired hundreds of likenesses in cities throughout the country. This year’s literary selection is Chris Cleave’s highly hailed 2009 novel “Little Bee,” about a Nigerian orphan and a British couple whose lives intertwine.
2. Boston: “The Whore’s Child,” by Richard Russo
Organizers of the third annual Boston Book Festival are distributing 30,000 copies of their 2011 “One City, One Story” selection, “The Whore’s Child” by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo. In this short story, an elderly nun, the abandoned daughter of a prostitute, writes about her childhood in a convent. A panel of librarians, educators and writers selected the work for its literary merit and ability to stimulate discussion.
3. San Francisco: “Packing for Mars,” by Mary Roach
In collaboration with the Bay Area Science Festival, the San Francisco Public Library chose “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void” by Mary Roach, a book that Monitor reviewer Peter Spotts called “a readable, often hilarious, guide” to human experiences on space missions. San Francisco selects books every year based on a sizable list of criteria, including connection to the city (Roach lives in Oakland, Calif.), public programming opportunity and accessibility — titles must be available in key languages, in large quantities and in paperback.
4. Philadelphia: “War Dances” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie
Philadelphia chose two books last spring for its ninth annual community reading program, both by Native American author Sherman Alexie. The books, “War Dances” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” are meant to be “read together, offering perspectives of youth and maturity on subject matter that includes a full range of modern relationships and current issues,” according to the “One Book, One Philadelphia” website. The latter title is a popular pick for collective reading programs: “One Maryland, One Book” also chose the semi-autobiographical teen novel this year.
5. Dublin: “Ghost Light,” by Joseph O’Connor
The Irish capital has a rich literary history — writers Jonathan Swift, W. B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce were all born in Dublin. Every April, the Dublin City Public Libraries plan events to promote one book. This year, Irish novelist Joseph O’Connor’s “Ghost Light” headlined. The love story is loosely based on that of a young, aspiring actress and a tortured Irish playwright. Next year’s book has already been selected: Dublin will be reading Joyce’s “Dubliners” in 2012.