Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: Read All about It

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: Read All about It

Article excerpt

Things may be a bit better. Spring- training games have begun, the very early forsythia already feels old, and here's a nice ongoing book fight to brighten your mornings. As the Chicago Tribune reports, Nancy Pearl, the executive director of the Washington Center for the Book, in Seattle, started the whole thing back in 1998, when she proposed that everybody in town read the same book at the same time. Within days, it seemed, all Seattle was nose-down into the Russell Banks novel "The Sweet Hereafter" (selected, perhaps, for its bad weather), while other literocentric burgs hurried to fall into line. A Chicago group, One Book One Chicago, settled on Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," and tens of thousands of local readers (by the estimate of Mary Dempsey, the commissioner of the Chicago Public Library) fell happily or doggedly into that famous good read, suppressing guilty flick-memories of Gregory Peck's tilting, anti-injustice chin and Robert Duvall's scary Boo Radley shamble. Since then, San Francisco has picked "The Grapes of Wrath" as its all-aboard reader, Milwaukee is going for David Guterson's "Snow Falling on Cedars," Los Angeles and Palm Beach County are in love with "Fahrenheit 451" (nifty hot weather-cum-literacy theme-paper op there), and Cleveland, Colorado Springs, and Valparaiso, Indiana, have cravenly or brilliantly jumped aboard the Harper Lee bandwagon.

Literary New York, swiftly recognizing the underfunded pallor and nervous glances of the out-of-town reading-is-good-for-you bunch, did not disappoint. Ann Douglas, a Columbia University professor and the author of "The Feminization of American Culture," told the Times, "Chicago is different. The New Yorker disdains to be a booster of his own city or of his own culture. That is for the provinces. . . . We are the most important group of readers and critics in the country and even possibly in the world." Harold Bloom, the eminent canoneer, agreed: "I don't like these mass reading bees. . . . It is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once." And Phillip Lopate, the editor of "Writing New York," offered, "It's a little like . . . 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' or something."

Yess.

"They basically called us hicks," Christine Rodrick, the assistant press secretary for the Chicago Public Library, cried to the Tribune. "What is their problem?" (unfair italics added) quavered Jordan Miller, the co-owner of Chicago Academy Publishing. New York, of course, then went infuriatingly ahead and picked its own mass-read candidate, chosen, after some haggling, by an ad-hoc committee of educators, librarians, and booksellers: Chang-rae Lee's "Native Speaker," a 1995 first novel about a Korean-American immigrant who immerses himself in the corrupt politics of Queens. Perfect--which is to say perfectly non-uniting. The New York Women's Agenda is concerned that "Native Speaker" isn't brisk enough to hold the attention of high-school students, and may also offend some Asian-Americans. Savvy pickers here predict that the N.Y.W.A.'s counter-choice, if any, will not feature a certain dead white whale. Meantime, other known book readers hastened forward in New York with endorsements or rips of rival candidate novels, like James McBride's "The Color of Water" and E. L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," and with nominees of their own. …

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