Library, city officials plan to get all of Baltimore on the same page


Following the lead of Chicago and other areas, Baltimore is planning a citywide reading assignment come fall, and the front-running book is the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, the one-time slave who became one of the most important black American leaders of the 19th century.

City and library officials confirmed yesterday that they are putting together a program to encourage community reading centered on the city's annual book fair in September.

The idea started in Seattle -- residents read The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks -- but gained speed after Chicago's program last year had citizens thumbing through Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. A mock trial of the one depicted in Lee's novel was performed, and screenings of the movie version were held at a library.

"The beauty is that people do love to read and discuss books," said Mary A. Dempsey, Chicago's public library commissioner. "Some need a citywide incentive to get caught up in the fun of it."

In Baltimore, city and library officials formed a committee and began researching the idea of putting their own intellectual booster program in place several months ago. Jeanne D. Hitchcock, the deputy mayor for intergovernmental relations, said the panel brainstormed about what book would be best for Baltimoreans.

It has tentatively decided on The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written By Himself because of the abolitionist's ties to Baltimore and the social issues his tale raises.

"We want [the book] to spark discussion and bring the city together around reading," Hitchcock said. "It will instill pride in the African-American community and then expose his important work to other communities in this city. No doubt it will spark the topic of race relations in Baltimore."

Hitchcock said the Douglass book was Mayor Martin O'Malley's choice. "The mayor liked this one a lot. ... Everybody agrees that it's a good one to select."

Carla D. Hayden, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and member of the book selection committee, said many books were under consideration.

Russell Baker's Growing Up, an autobiography about Baltimore life during the Depression, was in the running, as were Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit: An American Legend, the story of a racehorse that has a connection to Pimlico Race Course, and Jonathon Scott Fuqua's The Reappearance of Sam Webber, a novel about a Baltimore boy who befriends a janitor.

Hayden said the committee wanted a book that appealed to various age groups and touched on important themes.

Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 on Maryland's Eastern Shore and worked in the Baltimore shipyards as a caulker. He learned to read and escaped to Massachusetts, where he lived as a free man. Soon, he became recognized as a eloquent orator about slavery, and published his autobiography in 1845.

He also started an abolitionist newspaper, the North Star and was later appointed U.S. ambassador to Haiti. There is a landmark commemorating him in Fells Point.

If the Douglass book is chosen, there could be spinoff activities such as discussions about the slave trade or theatrical renditions of his story. "The sky is the limit in terms of ideas," Hitchcock said.

The program could expand. "It's not just a one-time deal. That's the really nice part about it," Hayden said.

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