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Putting the community in 'Community Reads'

By Marjorie Hudson
Posted Saturday, January 22, 2005

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There are lots of reports out there about how people are not reading books. The western world is becoming a kind of video game parlor. Soon those of us who do read will be living in secret camps, walking around, mouthing Emily Dickinson and Proust, like in “Fahrenheit 411,” in an attempt to keep great books alive.

Books bring people together like mashed potatoes and gravy.

There are also lots of reports about the death of “community” — you know, that thing, especially in the South, where everybody knows who your granddaddy was and what your kids did at the soccer game last night. And when somebody dies, they show up with fried chicken and salad, whether their granddaddy liked yours or not. For most people, this kind of community is a dim memory.

I’m here to tell you there are places where both reading and community are still breathing and the monitor shows a lively heart rate. Ever since Oprah drove a stake through her book club, people have been having Community Reads instead. People are mouthing Proust and Dickinson in grocery stores, in the soccer field, in libraries and just walking down the street. Instead of “How’s your daddy?” people say, “Have you read it?”

The conversation continues:

“Remember the part where…”

“I loved that, too.”

“My book club is talking about it next week. Wanna come?”

Bada boom. Instant community. Next thing you know, everybody is going to know who your daddy is and what your kids did last night.

Books bring people together like mashed potatoes and gravy. If you connect deeply with a book, you’ve connected with both the mind of the writer and the deep feelings of anyone else who has read the book. If you and your neighbor disagree about a book, it just gives you something interesting to argue about besides the election. You’ll have one thing in common after all: You read the same book.

Started by a librarian in Seattle, the Community Reads movement has seized the nation. You pick a book, and everybody reads it. Then the author comes to your town and you get to ask smart questions and argue just like on “Oprah” only it’s “live” and right in your neighborhood. It used to be just big cities that took on such projects — Seattle, Chicago, Greensboro. But now the little towns and rural counties are getting in the act. In my neighborhood — Pittsboro — a Community Reads event has been sponsored for the last two years by the Friends of the Pittsboro Memorial Library. Last year we picked Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, “The Secret Life of Bees,” just before it hit the best-seller lists. Five hundred people came to her talk. She’s been on the best-seller list for two years. We like to think we got her started.

This year we picked “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini, the first novel published in English by an Afghan-American author. According to The New York Times (which mentioned Pittsboro’s Community Reads on its arts page a few weeks back), “The Kite Runner” is making a run for it in Community Reads across the country. Community Reads, it appears, are the new “Oprah.”

Our Community Reads programs spotlight the strengths of our community, a small county seat in a rural but fast-growing area. The little Pittsboro Memorial Library has long acted as a kind of community center, with rabid readers gridlocked some days at the checkout counter like cars on an L.A. freeway. McIntyre’s Fine Books, a co-sponsor, just happened to have a barn that seats 500 for our author event. Local luminaries Judy Hogan, Doris Betts, Jaki Shelton Green and Janet Edwards could lead discussions. Chatham Arts is challenging local artists to “create art based on a book.” Retired ambassadors advised us on programming. Bashir, a young expatriate Afghan, agreed to help. Our local senior center will hold a fund-raiser featuring Afghan food and culture. The General Store Café will sponsor a “burrito bash” featuring green chile burritos and Middle Eastern music — a true Chatham County experience. We made a list of extra-credit activities and books teachers can use about Afghanistan, including a discussion for middle-school students with librarian Jennifer Gillis and a show of documentary photographs by UNC alumnus Luke Powell. One fine Saturday in March, we’ll build kites with artists Vidabeth Bensen and Katherine Ladd, then go fly them.

We talk about the book in grocery stores and hair salons, schools and churches, and yes, even soccer fields.

When the author comes (April 2, the Fearrington Barn), we expect a crowd. In that moment, we’ll be in a room full of people linked by a single idea: reading is a kind of community.

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Most Community Read programs in Pittsboro are free and open to the public.

Marjorie Hudson lives on a farm in Chatham County with her husband Sam, dogs Oz and Bean, and goats Lone Star and Bella. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College and a B.S. in Interdisciplinary Studies/Women’s Studies from American University. She has worked as features editor of National Parks magazine, contributing editor of American Land Forum, copyediting chief of Algonquin Books, and free-lance contributor to many journals and magazines on the subjects of history, environment, and the arts. She has published poetry and fiction in Yankee, Story, and West Branch, among others, and a recent story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

In 2000 Hudson was selected as Sarah Belk Gambrell Artist Educator of the Year, and she has been a Writer in Residence at Hedgebrook Retreat for Women Writers. She has won two Emerging Artist Grants funded by local arts councils and the NEA, and in 2002 she was a finalist for the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award.

 
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Putting the community in 'Community Reads'
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Related info:
Pittsboro Community Read Programs
 
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