This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

February 24, 2002 — New York and Philadelphia announced last week that they're doing it, hot on the heels of similar announcements by not only Los Angeles but the entire state of California. Orlando's going to do it, too, for both children and adults. Chicago already did it, as did Rochester and Little Rock, after Seattle did it first.

The "One Book, One City" fever sweeping the nation right now — wherein everyone in a given city is supposed to read the same book at the same time — seems like a grand idea, doesn't it?

It reminds me of that old Coke commercial where a bunch of people from all walks of life — the Village People, essentially — stand together on a mountaintop behind that barefoot blonde hippie chick and sing, "I'd like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony (per–fect har–mo–knee!) . . ." What if we were all up there — you, me, cousin Skeeter and that blonde woman, all of us reading the same book at the same time, our lips moving in tandem? Why, I get goose flesh just thinking about it.

Of course, they never choose the books that I'd choose. In Milwaukee, for example, the entire city is right now engaged in a read–along of a hack murder mystery — David Guterson's "Snow Falling on Cedars." Makes you want to visit Milwaukee, doesn't it?

But I'd make everyone in Washington, say, read Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse 5," to give them pause to think about fire from the sky as they conduct an air war over a remote country. Make everyone in Los Angeles read Nathaniel West's "The Day of the Locust." Make the Europeans read Henry James' "The Americans," and make Americans read James' "The Europeans." Make the Europeans and the Americans read "Out of Africa." Make the whole world re–read all of Orwell, "The Monkey Wrench Gang," "Lolita" and, for good measure, "Pat the Bunny."

Wouldn't that be great? It would make people in those places better people. They would understand each other better, and as a result — oh hell, I'm gonna say it — they would love each other. Yes, love each other. No one would ever curse at the car in front of them again.

Which must be why a front page article in the Los Angeles Times last week called the "One Book" concept "the nation's hottest intellectual trend." It said that when Chicago, for instance, chose "To Kill A Mockingbird" for its "One Book, One Chicago" project, the response was "electric" — "in this city of 3 million," the book was "checked out of public libraries more than 6,500 times."

Yikes! That's a whopping .216 percent of the city's population. Clearly, this "one book" business really draws people together.

So can you believe there are some who actually have a problem with it?

"I don't like these mass reading bees," critic and professor Harold Bloom told The New York Times. "It is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once."

Why, it's almost un–American, suggested Larry Jarvik, the proprietor of the online literary journal The Idler, in a letter–to–the–editor at MobyLives. He said he didn't like having "some central committee decide which book everyone in a given town should read" and probably putting "'peer pressure' on those who don't follow their lexical marching orders."

It might even be inhuman, said essayist and literary talk show host Philip Lopate. "It is a little like a science fiction plot — 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' or something," he told The Times.

Well, there are always malcontents. Here in New York, for example, I've heard grumbling that the "one book" phenomenon is just a plot by the book industry to sell more books.

People started saying this when the New York Times — functioning as an apparent bureaucratic stand–in for the mayor's office, or the head of the cultural affairs office, or the NYPL — suddenly informed us last week that we were going to have a "One Book" reading project, too. The Times announcement also happened to mention that it was being organized by, among others, BookExpo America, the industry's giant annual trade show, and the Association of American Publishers "as a way to encourage book buying," and that the secret — er, "ad hoc" — committee that "quietly" chose the book had bookstore owners on it.

Well, as I say, there are always lunatics who see plots where there isn't the least little sign of them.

As for me, the only thing that surprised me about the Times announcement was the book chosen — Chang–rae Lee's "Native Speaker." I thought we already had a "One Book" choice. How else to explain the fact that every time I get on the subway I see some sad sack — usually some very well dressed sad sack — reading "Harry Potter and the Massive Assemblage of Easy to Read Words"?

Toto, I don't think we're in Milwaukee anymore.

Last Week’s Column: WHEN WAR HISTORIANS GO TO WAR Caleb Carr, scholar of military history, does the sensible thing when two women critize him: he turns into Rambo.


Write to Moby
Letters policy: All letters must be signed. Also, please say where you’re writing from — either an affiliation or hometown.
All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.