In 1998, Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl made her mark with a program called “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book.”
Since then, the “one city, one book” concept has taken off. Similar programs have sprung up all over the country.
In the Twin Cities’ west metro area, several cities are gearing up for read-alongs this year.
Some programs are more established than others, like Eden Prairie Reads, which started a decade ago. Others, like Wayzata Reads, are experimenting with the idea for the first time.
Johannah Genett, a spokeswoman for Hennepin County Library, a sponsor of the read-alongs, said each program takes a slightly different twist on the original idea.
Book selections run the gamut, from thought-provoking to funny, with an emphasis on local authors. One program might focus on a single title, while others examine an author’s entire body of work. Still others delve into certain themes inspired by the chosen book.
But the group reads aren’t strictly intellectual exercises. Whether it’s through conversation about a book or a related workshop or panel discussion, the main goal of the collective reading programs is “building community through connection” across all backgrounds, Genett said.
And that comes through sharing in the joy of reading.
Terri Ziegler, an organizer of Plymouth Reads, which has been around since 2009, said the annual read-along has grown steadily through the years. In her view, the group read is “appealing to people because of the long history of myriad small neighborhood book clubs,” she said, adding, “People are comfortable with this known quantity.”
In some ways, the communitywide read mirrors a book club, “though the whole city doesn’t get together every month to discuss a book,” she said.
Instead, Plymouth Reads is more of an annual program that focuses on one book each year. “We try to pick a book that will spark conversation,” she said.
This year, the group will read “Holiday Inn,” a collection of autobiographical essays by Kevin Kling, a performer, playwright and author who grew up in Osseo.
‘It made me laugh and cry’
“The book seems to resonate with everyone who picks it up,” she said. “When I read it, it lifted me up. It made me laugh and cry. I could relate to it. He’s so good at telling his personal stories, which are universal.”
While thinking about a theme to pull out, Ziegler and other program planners scratched their heads. “We sat back and asked ourselves, ‘What is the core of this?’ He tells so many stories, how do we pick one theme?” she said.
That’s when it occurred to them that the idea of memoir might be of interest. So, to flesh that out, Plymouth Reads will host a memoir-writing workshop as the main attraction of its kickoff event in late March, she said.
To prepare for that, people are invited to contribute six-word memoirs that will be displayed at the library. The micro-memoir can be about someone’s “feelings right now or a theme of their whole life or dreams or wishes,” she said.
For example, a recent submission reads, “We swim in the same water,” she said.
For Ziegler, that strikes a chord. “It seems to me that it behooves us to connect with the other ‘swimmers,’ ” she said.
The read-along is a means of “learning about ourselves,” she said. “I see that as a part of the mission, not only to read a quality piece of literature.”
Linda Eckman, who lives in Plymouth, is a book lover, so that’s what reeled her in to Plymouth Reads a couple of years ago.
She had so much fun that she instigated a Wayzata version of the communitywide read. She now leads the Friends of the Wayzata Library group.
In the coming months, as a part of the first year of Wayzata Reads, the crowd will read “The Lighthouse Road,” a novel by Peter Geye, a Minneapolis native.
The book, which is set in northern Minnesota in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, unfolds in a creative way, going back and forth in time. “It’s lovely, and it expands your horizons,” she said.
If her experience with Plymouth Reads is any indication, “I think this could work to bring people together for a good, smart reason,” she said.
That’s especially important given all of the talk about the lack of face-to-face interaction in this digital age, Eckman said.
For her, the biggest selling point is that it’s fun. A communal reading program gives people a chance to air their opinions about literature. It’s not connected to “battling a city issue or ... something political or religious,” she said.
Tackling social themes
However, a citywide reading program might take on social issues, depending on what’s happening in the community.
For example, a couple of years ago, Eden Prairie Reads read “Outcasts United,” by Warren St. John, about a Georgia town that saw an influx of refugees.
Joe Guttman, who chairs the program’s planning committee, said that it was relevant given the city’s changing demographics. “What struck me is that Eden Prairie is becoming a more diverse city. Some of my neighbors now are moving here as refugees,” he said.
For Guttman, the book was an eye-opener. It made him realize that “not everybody has a similar background to myself. There are some things I can see after living here for 25 years that I take for granted,” he said.
This year, the program’s read by Cheryl Strayed, who has ties to Minnesota, is challenging in a different way.
“Wild” recounts the author’s story of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as a young adult, after having “lost her way,” he said.
“Basically, she’s facing her fears and getting mentally and physically healthy again,” he said.
To dovetail with that, Eden Prairie Reads is considering hosting a panel that offers advice for living a healthier, more balanced life, he said. Another possibility is to line up panelists who’ve embarked on “Wild”-style journeys themselves, he said.
In Edina, readers are latching onto a number of books throughout the year as a part of Edina Reads.
Toni Miller, senior librarian at the Edina Library, said that’s one way the program has evolved since it originated in 2005.
It has branched out to consider numerous writers and works throughout the year.
As such, the program might bring a few writers together to talk about their work as a part of a single event. “We’ve found that that helps bring in a larger audience,” she said.
Sometimes the reading has to do with a theme, like bullying, a subject that has gotten a lot of attention in Minnesota in the past few years.
The feedback has been largely positive, with people offering up lots of ideas, Miller said.
“I think that’s one reason why the program has grown so much,” she said, adding, “It has become very meaningful.”
It helps that Edina is fertile ground for writers, she said.
The next Edina Reads program in April will feature Mary Lou Judd Carpenter, an Edina resident. Carpenter compiled and edited the letters of her mother, Miriam Judd, for her book “Miriam’s Words.”
“The book is a real-time account of a wife of a public servant in the mid-20th century,” Miller said.
Judging from the strong turnout at events, “The program is in a good place,” she said. “I think it will continue to grow.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.