Novel Ideas?


The hottest thing in municipal government these days is picking a book that everyone in town is supposed to read. Seattle started this bookwagon rolling in 1996 when it encouraged the whole city to read Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter (1992). The big success, however, has been Chicago's "One Book, One Chicago" program, which last year assigned the populace Harper Lee's 1960 classic about race and law, To Kill a Mockingbird. Readers earned a $5 rebate on the book if they'd purchased enough Procter & Gamble products. The city bar association staged a mock trial like the one in the novel, the library devoted a weekend to screening the Gregory Peck version, Starbuck's gave you free coffee if you talked about the book there, and the city even distributed official Mockingbird ribbons for the good citizens to wear.

Los Angeles officials now plan to have Angelenos read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 this spring, while California State officials have gotten into the act by choosing Steinbeck's New Deal classic, The Grapes of Wrath, for the whole state to read. Hong Kong is thinking about doing a book, as is Trinidad and Tobago.

New York is thinking about doing a book thing, too, but not everybody there wants to play. Ann Douglas, a Columbia University academic, told The New York Times that, "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. As far as reading goes, we are the most important group of readers and critics in the world. 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."

Harold Bloom, the illustrious critic, told the Times, "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."

"It's a little like a science fiction plot—`Invasion of the Body Snatchers' or something," shuddered the New York writer Phillip Lopate.

Wonderful, no? New York's literati save their contempt not for the idea of state and local bureaucrats choosing and approving books to read, but for the readers! The provinces! It's all literally horrid!

A class of intellectual has always disliked the idea that "the masses" were reading, because lumpen tastes purportedly lower the cultural level. Figures like H.G. Wells, William Butler Yeats, and D.H. Lawrence used to be more outspoken about the curse of mass reader, wishing that that they would all be wiped out, say by a plague. It's not PC to say that sort of thing anymore, but this little reading debate has offered a glimpse into our intellectual back pages.