Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

"If All" Programs USA

[gary daily col. 9 March 24, 2002]

"The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them."
-- Mark Twain

While “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” moves into the last week of voting, here’s a brief report on a few similar programs across the country. Visit these cities and you will probably catch a glimpse of concert type T-shirts emblazoned with “If All . . .” logos on the front as well as key book reading destinations listed on the back: “Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Vigo County.”

Los Angeles, San Francisco and all of the Golden State works hard holding on to its reputation as the source of “the next new thing.” New York City (and here I am not thinking of the New York of the September 11 outrage and sadness) takes pride in its brashness and “center of the world” view of itself. And Chicago is “the second city,” or Carl Sandburg’s “city of big shoulders,” or Mayor Daley the First’s “the city that works.”

It’s been enlightening to observe these regions and cities respond to the challenge of the“If All . . . Read the Same Book” concept. California recently announced that it would be promoting John Steinbeck’s classic “The Grapes of Wrath” as its “If All” book. This is a great choice given the content of the novel and the fact that this year marks the author’s 100th birthday. It’s reported that neighbors in his hometown of Salinas once called him, that “no-good Johnny Steinbeck.” In recent years, some of the wealthy families that once encouraged the burning of Steinbeck’s books have coughed up some of the $13.5 million to pay for the National Steinbeck Center that opened in 1998. “No-good Johnny” seems to have escaped the short leash of “the next new thing” mentality.

Chicago has announced a second book in its “One Book, One Chicago” program. Having first read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” that city is now going to read Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical novel of the Holocaust, “Night.” Mayor Daley the Second is a big promoter of the “One Book, One Chicago” initiative. Perhaps he is turning his father’s “the city that works” slogan into the more contemplative “the city that reads.” A combination of the two is a blueprint for the making of a great city.

New York City is by far the most interesting in its public responses to the “If All” idea. When a committee of citizens and librarians joined to pick a book for New Yorkers to read together sparks began to fly. The “If All” committee struggled with nominations ranging from Henry James’s “Washington Square” to Don DeLillo’s “Underworld.” They eventually settled, or thought they had settled, on Chang-rae Lee’s Hemingway Foundation/Pen Award winning novel, “Native Speaker.” But not so fast. The jury, or I guess we should say juries, seem to still be out. Objections to “Native Speaker” created calls to reconsider. “Native Speaker” is hanging in there, but James McBride’s “The Color of Water” is experiencing a swell of officially unofficial support.

But the New York City story really gets interesting when the local lords of literature started to weigh in on the whole concept of “If All.” Here’s a sample.

Ann Douglass, of Columbia University, felt required to report that “The New Yorker disdains to be a booster . . . That is for the provinces.” And she adds this, “As far as reading goes we are the most important group of readers and critics in the country and possibly in the world. I would prefer to let us go on our merry way as we have for the last hundred years, deciding what everyone else should read.” Who needs boosters when you have first class boasters?

Harold Bloom, the Yale scholar who is reported to have placed himself at death’s door by attempting to read every book in the New York Public Library, weighed in with the following comment: “I don’t like these mass reading bees. It is rather like the idea that we all go out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once.” No one has yet reported if Bloom’s head nurse diet deficiency proclamation has helped or hurt sales at the Golden Arches.

But it took Phillip Lopate, editor of the anthology “Writing New York,” to move “If All” programs into the shadow world of a full-blown conspiracy. In Lopate’s view, initiatives such as “If All” resemble a kind of groupthink–“It is a little like a science fiction plot–‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ or something.” Whew! Sounds like Lopate has either eaten too many or not enough McNuggets.

How wrong can three very smart people be?

I leave if to a historian of New York City, Kenneth T. Jackson, to step out of from behind the trees blurring the vision of these three myopic metropolitans and see the forest that is in dire need of re-seeding and cultivation. Jackson’s view comes close to stating what Vigo County’s “If All” program is about:

“Any idea and any initiative that returns Americans to the wonderful joy of reading is to be encouraged and supported and praised.”

*****

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