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Readers are turning to community programs for their next lit fix

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Readers looking for the next book that everyone else is reading--and who want to go beyond The Da Vinci Code or the latest Harry Potter--now have a place to go besides the New York Times bestseller list: their local library. Community reading programs, in which as many individuals as possible are encouraged to read the same book at the same time, have recently become fixtures of public libraries.

The first community reading program was created by librarian Nancy Pearl of Seattle in 1998. Originally called "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book," the idea of one book being read by everyone in a community at the same time quickly spread throughout the country. Currently there are more than 300 community reading programs in the United States, including 11 in North Carolina. In addition to those in Wake and Durham, there are programs in Greensboro, Pittsboro, Alamance County and Forsyth County.

Nancy Pearl has gone on to become the closest thing library science has to a pop-culture icon--literally. She's been made into a best-selling action figure that comes equipped "With Amazing Push-Button Shushing Action!" according to the toymaker's Web site (www.mcphee.com/laf). Not bad for a woman whose "Weapon of Choice" is the Dewey Decimal System.

"Wake Reads Together" kicked off in 2003 with Ray Bradbury's classic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. For 2004, Wake read Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan, a fictional treatment of the Emmett Till lynching. Completed last March, the 2005 program featured The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, a mystery with a 15-year-old autistic boy for a hero.

Though it's hard to say exactly how many people have participated in Wake County's programs, the library estimates that more than 5,000 residents have read the selected book each year.

"It's the library's most successful adult program, systemwide," said Elena Owens, Readers Services Supervisor for Cameron Village Regional Library. "The program brings together people in one room who otherwise wouldn't normally come together. Especially for a place like Raleigh, where lots of people moved here from outside the area, that's important."

"Wake Reads Together" goes beyond encouraging individuals to read a book. The library invites organizations and institutions to get involved. In 2003, the Museum of Natural Sciences sponsored two showings of Truffaut's film version of Fahrenheit 451, with crowds of over 600 attending each show.

For Wake's 2005 reading of Curious Incident, the N.C. Autism Society helped plan the opening and closing events, and sent representatives to lead discussions of the novel. Professors at Wake Tech have included "Reads Together" books on their reading lists. The N.C. Museum of History and the Raleigh City Museum have also sponsored events.

As they have in the past, Wake librarians are letting the public choose next year's book. "It's important to get buy-in," explained Owens, who was co-chair of the committee during its first two years and is still a member.

The process begins in September, when the library will solicit book suggestions. Once the suggestions have been gathered, the committee, consisting of about 20 librarians and interested patrons, will whittle down the list based on issues of length (400 pages or less), affordability (must be in paperback), and availability (must be in print). Furthermore, the book's topic must be discussable as well as "programmable"--it must lend itself to a variety of approaches.

The committee chooses five finalists. "We strive for diversity in the list--fiction, nonfiction, usually a biography," Owens said. Starting in October, readers will be able to vote online (www.wakegov.com/county/libraries/readstogether/about.htm) or in person. The winner will be announced in January, and events will take place in February and March.

In addition to the example set by Wake and other established programs in North Carolina, "Durham Reads Together" was inspired by the visit last year of Chilean novelist Isabel Allende. The enthusiasm with which she was greeted by Durham readers spurred librarians and patrons to start up a communitywide reading program this year. James McBride's The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother is the subject of the first program, ongoing this summer and fall.

Durham County Library Adult Services librarian Nancy Blood chairs the planning committee. She described how they went about selecting the first title. "We wanted to honor Durham's African-American community by choosing a book by an African-American writer," she said. A shortlist including works by Zora Neale Hurston, Charles Johnson and Ernest Gaines was presented at community meetings in April. The committee settled on McBride's book in May. "We picked a book with themes that would resonate with people in Durham," Blood explained. "Family, race, faith, music, all enriching the storyline."

Part memoir, part family history, The Color of Water traces the author's memories of his mother, reconstructing her life story: a rabbi's daughter raised in a small town in southern Virginia, she moved to Brooklyn, married an African-American minister, converted to Christianity, and eventually helped found a Baptist church. Interleaved is the story of McBride's own childhood, his brushes with trouble, and his self-discovery as a musician and journalist. The title refers to the answer McBride's mother offered when he asked her what color God was.

So far, Durham's program has more than met expectations. Hillside High School received a grant from GlaxoSmithKline to purchase 1,600 copies of the book, one for every student in the school. The service club Altrusa International has donated $4,200 to the Durham Library to buy 525 more copies of the book, the largest purchase of a single title in the library's history.

Numerous Durham community groups, including Durham Tech, Duke University, Downtown Durham Inc. and Durham Congregations in Action, are lending support. Barnes & Noble and the Regulator Bookshop have offered discounts on The Color of Water. "People are just coming out of the woodwork to get involved," said Blood.

Melinda Killenberg is one of many Durhamites who've already finished McBride's book. She read it with the Pilgrim United Church of Christ women's auxiliary. "Our theme for the year was discussion of rural women," she said. "The book fit in very well with what we were doing." A former board member of the Friends of the Durham Library, Killenberg is a strong supporter of the library's reading program. "We live in a community divided on several levels, not the least of which racially. Reading together is a beneficial exercise."

"Durham Reads Together" will culminate with McBride's local appearances in October. McBride will lead a discussion for young people at the Hayti Heritage Center, host a Q&A session at Hillside High, and perform with his jazz group. For more information, go to www.durhamcountylibrary.org/ pr/program. htm#durhamreads .

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