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All of us, on the same page

By LISA BUIE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 25, 2002

What if everyone in Pasco County read the same book at the same time?

That was the question on Kurt Wilt's mind after hearing about a reading initiative that was born in Seattle four years ago. Similar versions of "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book" have spread to Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. In Florida, Gainesville, Palm Beach and Orlando also put on programs. Pinellas County is now in the middle of an initiative.

Wilt, an English professor at Saint Leo University, thought what was good for other communities could be good for Pasco. He started talking to folks at the Pasco County Public Library, the school district, Pasco-Hernando Community College, and, yes, the St. Petersburg Times.

Everyone thought it was a swell idea.

Here's how it works: A committee selects a book and encourages people to read it. After people finish the book, they can attend a series of lectures and discussions that tie into the book. High school and college students also read the book and discuss it in class. Students can enter essay contests.

Organizers have chosen John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, the tragic tale of friends George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant workers during the Great Depression.

It is a fitting title, as 2002 marks the 100th anniversary of Steinbeck's birth. With 118 pages, the book is a quick read, which committee members saw as a plus for a first-time program that had to be organized during summer vacations.

Organizers hope the enthusiasm will not be limited to official forums. Their dream is for it to take off, with neighborhoods, retirement villages, nursing homes, and public housing complexes all abuzz about the book.

Of Mice and Men was published in 1937, but its themes still hold relevance today. The book could be used to discuss intolerance, isolation, euthanasia, the economy, religion, even animal rights. The possibilities are endless.

Obviously, organizers hope One Book, One Pasco will promote reading. But Wilt hopes it will help bring together a county that too often is divided by race, class, age or geography.

"Any time people can get together to do something in terms of education and literacy, it's significant," Wilt said.

On a smaller scale, it could give people who barely know their next-door neighbors a way to start conversations. Maybe parents and children will read the book and talk about it.

"We hope it will have far-reaching effects," Wilt said.

That's exactly what happened in Chicago.

In the fall of 2001, the first year of its program, Mayor Richard Daley asked every resident to read To Kill A Mockingbird. In seven weeks, the novel, published in several languages, was checked out 6,500 times from local libraries, according to the Chicago Tribune. Starbucks offered its locations for discussions of the book and offered free coffee. The bar association even put on a mock trial based on the book.

In April, the city followed up with Elie Wiesel's Holocaust novel, Night.

Pasco's effort certainly lacks Chicago's glitz, but that's okay, said Nancy Pearl, executive director of the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library. Pearl is one who invented the One Book concept in 1998, with Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter.

She said Seattle's initiative also started small.

"I think that makes absolute sense," said Pearl, who added that the idea was greeted "with kind of a yawn and ho-hum attitude until Chicago did it."

Now, it's taking communities by storm.

In Pinellas, residents are reading Killing Mr. Watson, Peter Matthiessen's bestselling novel based on the life of Everglades outlaw Edgar J. Watson as part of the One Bay, One Book program. Matthiessen will appear at the Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 3.

Pasco organizers obviously cannot bring in Steinbeck (who died in 1968), but they have booked Steinbeck scholars to speak on Of Mice and Men and his other works.

The Pasco County Library System is stocking extra copies of the novel, as well as guides on how to form discussion groups. A Web site with discussion group information is also under construction. The book also is available for purchase at local bookstores, the two largest being Walden Books in Gulf View Square mall, and Books-A-Million in Port Richey.

At Walden Books, a paperback version costs $6.95.

"We've got quite a few copies Of Mice and Men," said Bob Barlog, co-manager of Books-A-Million. The store offers three styles of paperbacks that sell for $8 and $11.

The Times also gave the program money to buy books for low-income readers. For information, call the Pasco School District at one of the following numbers: (813) 794-2370, (727) 774-2370 or (352) 524-2370.

We want everyone to read the book, and we encourage you to share your experience with the Times. We want to hear about the stranger who became a friend.

We want to hear from the retired teacher who taught the novel in his or her school days and now is leading a neighborhood discussion. We want to hear from the hairdresser who is discussing the book with customers over haircuts. We want to hear from families who are reading the book together. Your story might end up being featured in the Times.

You may call me at (813) 909-4604 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4604. You may e-mail me at buie@sptimes.com. If you prefer to communicate the old-fashioned way, send letters to St. Petersburg Times, 24038 State Road 54, Lutz, FL 33559.

Happy reading.

-- Lisa Buie is the editor of the central/east edition of the Pasco Times.

Book program schedule of events

Following is a schedule of events for One Book, One Pasco. Additional events may be listed as the program progresses.

-- September and October: Juniors at Pasco County public high schools, who are studying Of Mice and Men throughout September, will hold an essay/poster contest this month and a Dear Author writing contest in October.

-- Sept. 9: Larry Broer, professor of English at the University of South Florida, will discuss "Looking for Steinbeck: The Essence Must Lie Somewhere" at 7 p.m. in Selby Auditorium at Saint Leo University, 33701 State Road 52

-- Sept. 18: A panel discussion on Mice and Men: Innocence Experience? at 7 p.m. in Selby Auditorium at Saint Leo University.

-- Sept. 30: Discussion on Steinbeck at Gulf High School at 7 p.m. The school is at 5355 School Road, New Port Richey. Time to be announced.

-- Oct. 9: A lecture and panel discussion of the ethical themes, literary devices and history of Steinbeck at 6 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center, beginning at 6 p.m at Pasco-Hernando Community College, 10230 Ridge Road, New Port Richey.

-- Oct. 21: A discussion of Of Mice and Men led by John Seelye of the University of Florida at 6 p.m. at Hudson Regional Library, 8012 Library Road.

-- Oct. 22: Presentation of the film Of Mice and Men, followed by a discussion at 6 p.m. at Hudson Regional Library, 8012 Library Road.

-- Nov. 4: Cannery Row, also by Steinbeck, will be discussed by Professor Nola Garrett at 6:30 p.m. at the Hudson Regional Library.

-- Nov. 18: Professor Nola Garrett will discuss another Steinbeck work, Log from the Sea of Cortez, at 6:30 p.m. at the Hudson Regional Library.

-- For information about events taking place at the Hudson Regional Library, please call (727) 861-3040.

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