Communities buzz with more 'literary' chatter

Reading a book is usually a solitary pursuit. Readers curl up in a comfy chair, withdraw from this world, and delve into another.

Yet, books are now becoming tools that pull people and communities together. In some places, reading is evolving into a kind of large-scale, communal-bonding activity.

In Chicago, officials are encouraging every resident to read Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," sparking citywide discussions on race and violence. Other cities - from Seattle to Rochester, N.Y. - are starting or beefing up similar programs.

First lady Laura Bush's new National Book Festival is promoting what she calls in a Monitor interview "a brotherhood and sisterhood of readers." (See story, page 4.) Her festival mimics several smaller ones nationwide.

And never mind Hollywood fare, one of the biggest blockbusters discussed at watercoolers these days is David McCullough's "John Adams," which has sold nearly 1 million copies.

To be sure, America isn't suddenly becoming a bookworm-nation. Illiteracy and aliteracy (choosing not to read) are widespread. But as isolated and information-saturated Americans search for ways to connect, more folks are seeing books as a useful starting point.

"Communal reading is a new notion, though it comes out of people talking about TV shows or even political scandals," says Jerome Kramer, editor in chief of New York-based Book Magazine. Literacy groups have been promoting reading for years, he observes, "putting it up there with flossing daily and eating your vegetables." But these days, he says, "People have realized they want a return to community ... doing that with a book is a wonderful, alternative way to have that conversation."

The runaway popularity of two things, observers say, may have jumpstarted this trend. Oprah Winfrey's on-air book club - which began in 1996 - was the first time anyone had "turned the energy and mass appeal of television directly back onto books," says Mr. Kramer.

Meanwhile, the "Harry Potter" series - which has sold 103 million copies worldwide - has given kids and adults a new common language, with talk of "muggles," "Hogwarts," and "quidditch."

Discussions about popular books and book groups themselves aren't new - Ben Franklin led a Philadelphia book group in the 1770s. But today, they're happening on a bigger scale.

In Chicago, for instance, officials hatched the idea of getting residents to read one book at the same time. Harper Lee's classic was picked, and the seven-week project kicked off Aug. 25. Now, "Mockingbird fever" is spreading. Libraries have stocked 4,000 extra copies (including Spanish and Polish translations), and are hosting discussion groups and screenings of the 1962 movie version. Bookstores are setting up special displays. The city has printed 25,000 mockingbird lapel ribbons. Officials guess that tens of thousands will take part.

Chicago literacy guru Tim Shanahan admits he found the idea "a little silly, at first." But now, because of the book, "people all over the city are talking about race and violence, reaching across borders," says the director of the University of Illinois-Chicago's literacy center.

He suspects that the proliferation of bookstores -especially superstores - is one reason why communal reading is catching on. "Now, there's a Borders or Barnes & Noble on practically every street corner."

For Nancy Pearl, the Seattle librarian credited with originating the idea of rallying a city around one book, it's something more elemental. She sees a great void in a society in which "people can go through their whole day" - paying for gas, stopping at an ATM machine, sitting in front of an office computer - "without talking to someone, let alone having meaningful contact."

Books are a great antidote, says Ms. Pearl, who includes the title of her latest favorite book on her voicemail greeting. Through reading and talking about books, she adds, "people feel a connection to others they don't get in their daily lives."

Seattle's fast-growing program is in its fourth year. (Next year's selection is Molly Gloss's "Wild Life," about a single mom who raises five kids in Oregon.) Rochester and Buffalo, N.Y., also have been hosting similar projects. Syracuse, N.Y., Springfield, Ill., and Boise, Idaho, plan to.

Alice McDermott, author of "Charming Billy" and "A Bigamist's Daughter," sees another force at work.

"People are turning to good books, looking for things that popular culture has less and less of," like truth and moral substance, she says, sitting in the shade of a towering oak on the Capitol's east lawn during last weekend's National Book Festival.

She has just finished reading a short story to a jovial, standing-room-only crowd in the "Fiction and Imagination" tent - one of five sprawled on the lawn. (Nearby, at the Library of Congress, David McCullough's talk was full to capacity, and ushers had to deny access to scores of people.)

"It's not just that more people are reading," says Ms. McDermott, recalling past pop-culture book fads."It's that they're reading such wonderful stuff - and talking to each other about it."

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