Community Reads: A Response by Chris

It's no mean fete to get a community reading. It's even tougher to get everyone to read the same thing. Or is it? A recent New York Times article about the launch of area book clubs ("Launched for the Next Round of Read-Ins," March 4, 2009) struck a chord.

Maybe it was the Web title that belittled the practice: "Like Book Clubs on Steroids, Communities are Set to Read a Single Title and Discuss."

Maybe it was the lead that presented the image of a group of women (and a few men) reading together, quietly, in the same room, the book The Shawl (which seems more sterile than communal).

Maybe it was just me having a bad day. But all I could think of is, Please, not in my community.

It's not that I don't like "sensitive" topics, or ones that are moving or emotional or historic by nature. I know it's a challenge to get any community to read a single book — unless you're Oprah or Richard and Judy. And that's what I realized stuck in my craw: with the wrong book, a community read feels cheap.

A celebrity or Hollywood has a hankering for a title and everyone reads it. It's the first thing propped up in the Borders promenade, it's at the top of the bestseller list. Everyone has seen the movie, so the book is consumed like cheap sweets because if [fill in the blank] liked it, it must be good. These pop book-choosing entities select titles that fit a Topic. Lately, it's been the Holocaust — because, really, that is the only reason a book like The Reader could possibly be a bestseller and an award-winning movie.

To be fair, attention to such a tough topic have brought to light some terrific stories, such as the Bielski brothers who created a safe haven in the Bellarussian forests, and Oskar Schindler. I hope these kinds of stories continue to be shared because they are important and, let's be honest, entertaining. I'm sure The Shawl has that potential. And in this world, remembering the atrocities of the past are important to the success of preventing them in the future. And the modest volume Night seemed to survive Oprah's onslaught.

But other Oprah books on the Holocaust and Other Important Topics haven't been able to survive the glare of the spotlight, and have brought as much embarrassment as they did success to their authors. (Gawker's article has a little salty language, but is an excellent list of pop failures.)

Don't get me wrong: I am a communal reader. I love suggestions from my local libraries, colleges and other trusted sources and, so far, these books have been winners in my book.

I know I fret about books, worrying that people will dis my favorite pastime if the bestsellers are more like The Reader than Water for Elephants. Maybe I'm a little bit of a snob, too, which has made me skeptical of popular books that really are that wonderful, like the Harry Potter series.

At any rate, I will continue to read with my community, as long as it's not a mawkish book that doesn't deserve our time. However, my local librarians haven't disappointed me yet. They know their community, which I suppose is the key to success.

Maybe Oprah's selection of A New Earth was the best choice for her community at that time; she did choose The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which has reviewers raving (and, yes, I will read to see if it's all that and a hedgehog bookmark).

Maybe it doesn't matter who chooses what — librarians have long advocated any kind of book to keep people reading.

Maybe the magic of communal reading is that it creates discussion and encourages reading. And that is a good thing.

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