America's Athens shrugged

Hundreds of cities have embraced a program that celebrates reading and books, but Boston, a hotbed of literacy and culture, remains surprisingly cool to it. Why?

(Illustration by Ray Bruwelheide)
By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / June 13, 2010

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Chicago has one. So do Malibu and San Diego, Denver and Poughkeepsie, Seattle and Philadelphia. Somerville does too.

What they share, along with hundreds of communities around the country, is a One Book, One City program, in which an entire community reads the same work and launches into a series of discussions, lectures, readings, and occasionally film screenings. Somerville, in its first year, read Tim O’Brien’s novel about the Vietnam War “The Things They Carried’’ and organized two months of events.

Boston, which has rested comfortably on its haute literary perch for ages, has never had one. Unlike Chicago, where Mayor Richard Daley enthusiastically announces the books, Boston’s mayor doesn’t support the idea, and nobody else has taken the lead. A contributing reason is that as cities struggle with budget cuts, such as Boston’s recent decision to close four library branches, finding the money for a One Book, One City program is hard.

“It has come up many, many times,’’ says Alice Hennessey, Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s liaison to the public libraries. “We did research on it all over the country. There are so many different interests here that we encouraged local groups to do their own reading. The mayor doesn’t want to impose a book on people.’’

The closest Boston may get to One Book, One City will come this fall. The organizers of the second annual Boston Book Festival and Menino announced Wednesday that a foundation has agreed to fund a One City, One Story event at this year’s celebration. The plan involves publishing a short story by a local author, distributing 30,000 copies around the city, and making the work available online.

Still, why Boston can’t do the real thing?

Fostering a community of readers
At its best, the One Book program brings people together who would have never met otherwise to read and talk. It creates a bond among participants and fosters a culture of reading. And, according to a report in Library Journal, it’s a boon for books. The journal said One Book, One Chicago selections are circulated up to 4,000 times by local libraries, and local bookstores see sales for selected titles jump 300 percent.

Critics argue the idea is one more example of officials intruding on people’s lives by telling them what to read, or that it’s simply trying to fill a void that doesn’t need filling.

“Everyone has their own Balkanized reading groups and book clubs,’’ surmises local author Doug Bauer. “There is no sense of a vacuum here.’’

Bret Anthony Johnston remains stunned.

“For a city this literate, the absence is baffling,’’ says the director of Harvard’s creative writing program and the author of “Corpus Christi Stories,’’ chosen by that Texas city for its One Book program. “There was a feeling of shared enterprise in the discussions and events down there, and I believe readers came away from the program feeling enriched, enlivened. Who can argue against reading?’’

Harold Bloom for one. The most prominent literary critic in the country famously told The New York Times in 2002, “It is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once.’’

The need for political muscle
For a big city like Boston to launch One Book, One City, the political muscle is critical. In Chicago, the mayor’s backing has been key to its success. “He really endorses and loves this program,’’ said Chicago Public Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey.

The One Book idea began with Nancy Pearl, then executive director of The Washington Center For the Book in the Seattle Library, who in 1998 created If All Seattle Read the Same Book. First up was Russell Banks’s “The Sweet Hereafter.’’ It was an instant hit, and the program, now called Seattle Reads, remains popular today.

Chicago picked up on the idea in 2001. One Book, One Chicago has, for the past nine years, picked two books a year, and its program is considered the most successful in the country. High school students study the books picked, as do students at nearby DePaul University. Steppenwolf, Chicago’s celebrated theater group, performed “The House on Mango Street’’ the year the novel by Sandra Cisneros was chosen. Authors discuss their books amid a profusion of events built around the selections. It takes a lot of money and work to put on a good One Book program, says Ruth Lednicer, marketing director for the Chicago Public Library. Besides the author’s travel expenses, there are venues to rent and costs for printing and advertising.

Somerville got a $7,500 federal grant that came through the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners to create Somerville Reads. One Book, San Diego, initially spearheaded by the local PBS affiliate KPBS, spends $100,000 for each One Book, One San Diego. Chicago, blessed with strong corporate support, routinely comes in around $60,000 per book.

One hurdle: deciding what to read
If there is one obstacle more challenging than the money, it’s deciding on what book to read. In Chicago, Dempsey says a handful of people read a lot of books and then agree on one. “It’s the only way to do it,’’ she says. “It’s not about process here.’’

New York City succumbed to process in 2002. There was a large selection committee, agendas collided, and no decision could be reached between two finalists, “The Color of Water’’ by James McBride and “Native Speaker’’ by Chang-Rae Lee. Nothing has happened since then. “It was all about political correctness,’’ recalls Susan Avery, a committee member. “ ‘We’ll offend black Americans; we’ll offend Korean Americans.’ That’s part of the reason we read, to open a discussion. New York just couldn’t get out of its own way.’’

As One Book’s popularity has grown, competition has sprouted up. In 2005 the National Endowment for the Arts created The Big Read, which gives grants up to $20,000 to bring reading to cities and towns. The difference between One Book and The Big Read is that NEA recipients must choose from among 31 books on the endowment’s list.

Pittsfield, through a Big Read grant, is now reading “The Things They Carried.’’ UMass Boston is in its third and final year of a Big Read grant and is finishing up Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.’’

Pat Monteith, general manager of the UMass radio station, says her efforts to expand the school’s Big Read program flopped. “I got no support from the [school] superintendent’s office,’’ she says. “And the BPL showed no interest when I inquired there two years ago. “I talked to the mayor’s office a few times, and they never followed up.’’

Amy Ryan, president of the Boston Public Library, would love to see a One Book program in Boston, but acknowledges the library doesn’t have the money to lead the effort. “I think it’s a great idea,’’ she says. “And it’s something we’d consider in the future.’’

No one understands the challenges of organizing a large literary event in Boston better than Deborah Porter and Emily Pardo, who are planning the Oct. 16 book festival, which is supported in part by the Globe. It’s a monumental challenge. They share the problem that has kept One Book, One City out of Boston. “No one wants to take the initiative,’’ says Porter.

Sam Allis can be reached at


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