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Building community with words


CHICAGO - Seattle did it first. Los Angeles is doing it next. But this city of ethnic neighborhoods and exaggerated blue-collar grit - former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka likened the town and the football team to "a bunch of guys named Grabowski" - is where the United States' hottest intellectual trend really took off.

Mayor Richard M. Daley last fall asked every resident of this city of 3 million to read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. The response to One Book, One Chicago was electric.

The novel about a white lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape in a Southern town in the 1930s was checked out of public libraries more than 6,500 times in seven weeks. The paperback made its way up from 250th to 51st place on Amazon.com's national sales list. The Chicago Bar Association held a mock trial, complete with costumes, based on the courtroom drama depicted in the novel.

The Chicago Public Library staged a marathon weekend screening of the movie version, starring Gregory Peck. And Daley, a popular mayor who is fond of planting flower beds and commissioning art to beautify the city, asked library officials to pick a spring book. (They did, Elie Wiesel's Night.)

Ever since, communities across the country have embraced the idea of reading a book together.

"There's definitely been a buzz since Chicago did To Kill a Mockingbird," said Jim Quay, executive director of the California Council for the Humanities.

Inspired by Chicago's example, the council will ask Californians this summer to read John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. At more than 600 pages, Steinbeck's classic is hardly a typical beach book. Still, California officials seem confident that the Joad family's story of migrating from Oklahoma will appeal to the state. "It's a great read," Quay said.

As for Los Angeles, Mayor James K. Hahn plans to ask residents this spring to read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

In an age of multimedia menus, with 24-hour cable TV and movies on demand, it might seem anachronistic that interest in the low-tech book is being revived. But some believe the surge of popularity for communal reading - not just by cities but also by book clubs and at bookstore events - is a direct response to the essential loneliness of modern life. Some say it's an antidote to the "bowling alone" syndrome, coined by Harvard University's Robert D. Putnam to describe the recent decline in civic participation.

"You can go through an entire day without ever interacting with another human being on anything except the superficial," said Nancy Pearl, executive director of the Washington Center for the Book that sparked the city-reads-a-book movement in Seattle in 1996. "There's a thirst for conversation. People want to talk to people about important issues."

Although Seattle sponsored the first citywide reading (Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter), Pearl acknowledges that Chicago put the trend on the map. So as the phenomenon sparks interest around the world (Hong Kong and Trinidad and Tobago have requested information about Seattle's program), it might not be simple to duplicate Chicago's success.

Despite its image as an industrial town of stockyards and beefy politicians, Chicago has long had an affinity for the written word.

Oprah Winfrey lives here, and being named to Oprah's Book Club can add millions of dollars to a book's sales. The American Library Association, the largest and oldest such trade group in the world, has its headquarters here.

The Chicago area has produced its share of famous authors - Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, Gwendolyn Brooks. It especially treasures writers with a fierce bond to the common man, such as Studs Terkel and Mike Royko.

It also delights in avid readers who defy expectations - the colorful Bill Veeck, the former owner of the Chicago White Sox baseball team who once let a midget pinch-hit in the major leagues and who loved a good book; Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, who was such a passionate reader that the city's main public library was named in his honor; and Phil Jackson, who as coach of the Chicago Bulls gave books to each player.

"If you can hang with gas station attendants and university professors, that's admired," says Miles Harvey, a Chicago writer.

Once the nation's second-largest city (it's now in third, behind New York and Los Angeles), Chicago has long suffered from a "second-city complex," and Harvey thinks that accounts for its emphasis on learning.

"There's more pride in it here," says Harvey, whose acclaimed Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime was researched in the Newberry Library here, which boasts an impressive map collection. "People still pride themselves on being regular Joes. They are not seething in anti-intellectualism. You might go into a bar and talk books with someone who doesn't look like they read."

And then there's the city's phone book of ethnic names. Chicago is home to the largest number of Polish descendants outside of Warsaw. There is a sizable and growing Latino population. The black and Jewish communities are prominent. For many Chicagoans, books are a connection to home, to the great authors of Ireland or Russia, to the literary tradition in Poland or Mexico. As a result, the Chicago Public Library buys books in 100 languages.

Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey, widely credited with the success of the One Book, One Chicago program, made sure that the selected books would attract not only the city's many ethnic communities (the library bought copies in English, Spanish and Polish), but also its teen-agers.

She and other library officials envisioned "a nice little program [in which] we got strangers talking to strangers on trains and in coffee shops."

But Daley had grander ambitions. He marshaled the resources of the entire municipal government to ensure the widest possible participation, part of his wider effort to draw the city's middle class back from the suburbs.

The city reached out to corporate sponsors. Local grocery chain Jewel-Osco, regional corporate powerhouse Procter & Gamble and Borders participated in the program. The city published a resource guide for teachers and distributed 40,000 lapel pins that asked "Are you reading Mockingbird?"

The library held book discussions with professional moderators facilitating the conversations. High schools performed theatrical versions of the story. Starbucks, with 60 stores in the city, provided free coffee and pastries to customers who participated in book discussions, also moderated by library personnel.

The budget was not large - $37,100 - but the effect was. Librarians reported that patrons confessed to not having read a book for years, until the city's effort made them feel part of something bigger.

But not everyone in Chicago is buying into the civic pride. Several cabbies had never heard of the program.

And Joseph Epstein, a local essayist and short-story writer who teaches at Northwestern University, was downright dismissive. "I have no sense whatever whether it has mattered a jot," he said.

Others think Chicago's embrace of reading together has less to do with literary tradition than with more prosaic factors, such as the weather.

Campbell McGrath, a poet and author of the award-winning Spring Comes to Chicago, moved to Florida 10 years ago. He thinks Seattle and Chicago share a gray-sky climate that makes curling up inside with a book a natural. "I can't tell you how excited I am when a gray sky comes along. There's something about the long gray period of time that kind of throws you back into yourself philosophically."

Then there are the long commutes by train. "Within a very short time of its founding, Chicago had thousands and thousands of railroad lines," said Mary Wyly, associate librarian at the Newberry. "And there's nothing handier than a book on a train."

Johanna Neuman writes for The Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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