Saturday, August 10, 2013

One Book, One City, One Fobbit

Of all the honors bestowed on Fobbit since its publication nearly a year ago, few have been as gratifying as its selection as a "one-book, one-community" pick.  The idea of a city, a county, a state urging its citizens to band together in harmony to read the same book at the same time--a civic book club, if you will--is still a surprising concept to me.  I have visions of entire football stadiums filled with rows of readers silently turning pages.  Ah, if only...

According to this Wikipedia page, Seattle was the first spot in the nation to officially sanction a One City, One Book campaign (though, I'm pretty sure that distinction should go to Plymouth, Massachusetts--didn't the Pilgrims all get together and encourage everyone to read the Bible?  You know, "One Settlement, One Good Book").  Legendary librarian Nancy Pearl was at the head of the 1998 Seattle program called "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book," which in their case was The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks (and a better book could not have been picked, IMHO).  As Wikipedia notes, "Other cities copied the idea, and the Library of Congress listed 404 programs occurring in 2007."

The one-city, one-book concept has its critics, with Harold Bloom (no surprise) leading the way, calling them "mass reading bees" and Philip Lopate concerned that it would be a detrimental form of group-think like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (as if Book People could ever turn into Pod People!).  From an author's perspective, though, it's a grand and glorious honor...and also a bit puzzling: "Really?  They want to read my book?  Everyone at the same time?"  Well, of course not everyone.  There will always be those who don't have time or interest in sitting down for a group "reading bee."  But just the notion of having your book promoted city-wide for an extended period of time is a pretty cool thing.

The city of Billings, Montana is the latest community to adopt Fobbit and showcase it for a few days (January 6-9).  I don't have the exact schedule of events yet, but I'm really looking forward to visiting the Magic City to talk about my "comedy about the tragedy of war."   I'm in good company with the rest of this year's One Book Billings lineup:
September 9-12:  Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea
November 4-7:  I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River by Henry Winkler (yes, the Fonz)
March 3-6:  American Masculine by Shann Ray
May 5-8:  The Secret Life of Cowboys by Tom Groneberg

As an added bonus, those of you who are able to attend the events in January will be able to see the newly-spiffed-up Parmly Billings Library, which is scheduled to have a formal grand re-opening in February with Neil Gaiman and Michael Berenstain in attendance.

Billings isn't the first community to hoist Fobbit on its shoulder and carry it through the streets.  That honor goes to Coos County, Oregon who feted me (along with my wife Jean) during May as part of the annual Title Wave program.  This was a sort of homecoming for the two of us: we moved to Eugene a month after we were married, I attended the University of Oregon and earned my bachelor's degree in English, and we gave birth to our first two children there in the drizzly mist of the city.  The trip was our first time back in about 25 years and so it spawned a lot of memories about seagull poop and our first attempt at breaking-and-entering a house.

More than just a walk down Memory Lane, however, being honored by the coastal towns of Coos Bay, North Bend, Lakeside and Bandon got me as close to feeling like literary royalty as I'll ever come.  I was chauffeured throughout my entire stay by a kind, soft-spoken librarian named Gary who each day printed out maps and lists of things to do and places to eat (if you ever find yourself in North Bend, I--along with Gary--highly recommend The Pancake Mill for breakfast).  I spoke to library patrons, book lovers at a senior citizens center, and high school students.  The latter group was the most enthusiastic, going all out with banners and displays that showed they were really, really into Fobbit.

As with every large group, not everyone totally embraced the novel (which, admittedly, is not always easy to read with its generous helpings of profanity and violence).  One librarian told me, frankly, that "I'd never pick up your book" just before I went on to speak to the people assembled in the other room.  But that kind of reaction is to be expected.

What I didn't expect were the heart-warming, eye-watering moments like the time a teenage girl came up to me and said that reading Fobbit had helped her cope with her mother's pending death.  "We'd just found out she had colon cancer," she told me.  "I was at a loss--didn't know what to do--and then I saw your book sitting there and I decided to start reading it as a way to escape.  Pretty soon, I was laughing so hard, I'd almost forgotten about the bad news."

Wow.  What do you say to something like that?  All I could do was tell her, in a voice husky with emotion, thanks for reading and that I hoped her Mom got better soon.

Those are the times when you realize that even though an entire community is behind your book, the only thing that really matters is the fact that one person read it and let themselves be taken away from the bad news of the world, if only for a few hours.


  1. Now I feel bad. I lived in Seattle in 1998, and I have never read that book.

  2. Although I do admit I have a bone to pick with the Seattle Public Library after they wasted $165 million of the taxpayers' dollars on that horrid new downtown library. The best library in Seattle is by far Suzzallo at the University of Washington.