Chicago's launch of a campaign to have its citizens read the same book (Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird") holds great promise to help connect a large population, take people away from TV, and promote a healthy discussion of racism at the same time.
The idea actually has its roots in Seattle, where it's now a yearly event. It's spread to Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y., and other cities are planning similar events. Even one state, Kentucky, set out to have its entire population read native Barbara Kingsolver's "The Bean Trees," attracting some 9,000 readers.
Chicago, as part of a myriad of planned activities, will distribute 25,000 lapel pins with mockingbird logos. The idea is to jump-start conversation among "strangers." Partnerships with local businesses, along with numerous planned discussion groups, will provide safe spaces for conversation about the chosen books.
Reaching a decision on a single book for an entire city to read represents a significant achievement in itself (Harper Lee's novel was selected by a committee of city librarians). City officials, and the public, can carry over this consensus sensibility.
A note of caution: Events like these, as they grow in popularity, can risk being co-opted by those with less-than-altruistic motives, losing both their authenticity and appeal. The idea needs to stay within community-minded organizations, and prevented from becoming an easy marketing or public-relations ploy. That's helped when individuals, and each participating corporate or government partner, keep the community-strengthening goal squarely before them.
Binding large, diverse populations with books may not be easy. But working to help individuals find "over the back fence" conversation about difficult topics would probably make Harper Lee proud.