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One Book, One State 

If San Franciscans tried to choose a single book to read, we'd kill each other. Fortunately, it's been chosen for us.

Wednesday, Mar 27 2002
It would begin with a committee. A secret group of well-meaning literary types -- booksellers, librarians, and academics -- would get together to choose the "right" book for all of San Francisco to read at once, in the spirit of numerous "One Book, One City" programs that have sprung up around the country. Nominations would pile in, and the team would rapidly eliminate them: What about this lovely book on the 1906 earthquake? Ancient history. How about this nice story set in Chinatown? Not universal enough. Tales of the City? Nah, everyone's read it. The media would find out about the plan, and the protests would begin. The diversity of the committee would come into question. Critics would dismiss the choices as not literary enough. Special interest groups would complain about being excluded from the process. A breakaway contingent would nominate its own favorite. Newspapers would endorse one choice over another. Bookish types would complain about being told what to read. Finally, in an effort at peacemaking, Willie Brown would declare a moratorium on reading, and we'd all sit back with our remote controls, content to scan the TiVo listings for a little word fix.

It could happen. In fact, something much like it did happen in New York, where a huge brouhaha erupted recently over a committee's choice of Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker for a citywide program. Many New Yorkers openly ridiculed the mere idea of trying to choose one book for everyone to read. "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," a Columbia professor told a New York Times reporter, in the process insulting every city that has adopted the program thus far.

Fortunately, we have the nonprofit California Council for the Humanities to thank for helping us avoid this potentially ugly scenario. As the first in a multi-part program to urge Californians to talk about how we got here, the council recently announced John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath as the book we should all read this year. I'm happy to say, having just reread the book for the first time since high school, that I can recommend it heartily. I'm also happy to point out that the council has handled the process exactly as it should: It took no suggestions, never considered another book, and chose a dead author. No muss, no fuss.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Californians will actually take the suggestion, or whether they'll balk as the New Yorkers did (they compared the group read to the mass consumption of Chicken McNuggets and to the results of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, calling the plan "groupthink" and "political correctness"). At first it seemed laughable to me that the council, an organization committed to cultural enrichment, would attempt to enthuse the most populous state in the country about a single volume. But its mission is different from that of other reading programs, and toward that end its choice makes a lot of sense.

The first major program to get one community reading together began in Seattle in 1998 as "If All Seattle Read the Same Book," and the idea has spread all over the country, from Vigo County, Ind., to Gainesville, Fla., to "One Book, One Stockton" in Northern California. Some cities started with the same volume as Seattle -- Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter -- while others chose novels with some connection to their location. Chicago chose Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird for its "One Book, One Chicago" events, a title picked up by many other cities. Needless to say, San Francisco has never had such a program.

Most of these "community reads" began with a good idea. As Pat Schroeder, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers, put it in a recent newsletter interview, "[E]veryone else has been out there saying do this because it's fun, play video games because it's fun, listen to headphones because it's fun. And we haven't said reading is fun. We've been treating it like "Eat your peas.'" Unfortunately, the "One Book" program is more like eating peas than playing video games: Someone's telling me what to do, when to do it, and how to feel about it. The agenda is vague -- encourage reading -- with no mention of good books, or relevant books, or even fun books. As Susan Cheever put it in Newsday recently, the books "were chosen for marketability and inoffensiveness, [and] [f]ear of offense is death to literature."

The California Council for the Humanities, on the other hand, makes its agenda clear: In a state where more than half the residents come from somewhere else, it would build compassion to read one of the best books ever written about migration. Along the way, The Grapes of Wrath may offend some people. It's sexist (hell, it was published in 1939), it ends shockingly, and it has a few harsh things to say about religion and scapegoating (not to mention large property owners). It's also gorgeous, funny, provocative, and hard to put down. As Julie Levak, the council's Director of External Affairs puts it, "No one worried, "How will the growers feel?' ... This [book] is a point of departure. If someone disagrees with the historical accuracy of the book, then great, we can talk about it."

Only one librarian I spoke to complained about the choice. "We'll do Steinbeck," she said, "but we may pick a different book. Grapes is so long and hard." Once I got over the irony of a librarian complaining about a book's length (my edition is 455 pages), I realized that she didn't yet understand the goal.

Another reason for the council's quick and easy process was that its members didn't ask for outside help. If they'd tried to choose a book by citywide consensus, Levak explains, "There'd have to be some kind of divine intervention." She goes on, "We just said, "Here's the thing we're doing; who would like to join with us?'"

The story of the book's choice is rather romantic. Associate Director Ralph Lewin was driving through Yolo County with his wife, Caitlin Mohan, when they started talking about the Chicago program. "We were on the road somewhat like the Joads," Lewin explains, "with our baby in the back" of the car, and they kept coming back to The Grapes of Wrath. He brought the idea back to the council, which unanimously approved the choice. "That was the book," says Levak. "That was unassailably the book."

Come May, the council will officially launch its campaign, inviting folks to read Grapes over the summer. "Our aim," the project notes read, "is to have thousands of people across the state reading the book and discussing the way their experiences as Californians resonate with the themes of the novel." In October there will be events and public programs, coordinated by local booksellers, festival organizers, and libraries. After that, the project begins handing out grants to individuals who want to tell and document their own California stories. Grapes may be the only book the council ever promotes; choosing another isn't in the current plan, though it's not ruled out, either.

Far from "groupthink" or "political correctness," the choice is thought provoking. How did you -- or your parents or grandparents -- get here? Perhaps, like Steinbeck's Joads, you imagined "[t]he vineyards, the orchards, the great flat valley, green and beautiful, the trees set in rows, and the farm houses. ... The grain fields golden in the morning, and the willow lines, the eucalyptus trees in rows." Or not. Either way, skip the arguments about which book you would have chosen and just read the damned thing. You might be surprised how much you like it.

About The Author

Karen Silver


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