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City Life

City needs more mature choices on arts scene

sandra thompson
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By SANDRA THOMPSON

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 15, 2003


At the library to pick up a bunch of books I'd put on hold, I noticed in the library newsletter that we're in the middle of a month-long "One Community, One Book" project, a version of the nationwide "One Book, One City" trend that began in Seattle five years ago.

Interesting, I thought. What book? I read on, and realized it was the same book I'd noticed a week ago in a display with a colorful book bag. I hadn't looked closer then, because it was clearly a children's book.

Tampa has chosen a children's book as its one book for the city -- all of Hillsborough County, actually -- to read and talk about, praise and debate.

It's Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls. I could tell you the plot -- it's about a young boy and his dogs -- but subject is not what makes a book right for children or adults. It's more subtle things like the layering of meaning, the degree of illumination. An adult book should be too difficult for most children, and too boring, and a children's book should be too easy for adults, and too boring.

Let me say this: There is nothing at all wrong with the library or the city or anybody else doing anything -- anything! -- to encourage children to read. I'll even go for the scavenger hunt at MOSI tied to the book.

But that's not what the "One Book, One City" project is about.

It's about getting adults to read and to talk about what they've read. Cities -- or, sometimes, counties and states -- all over the country are doing it, from Miami, which read A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines, to Madison, Wis., which read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. In the list of cities paired with their chosen books, which is on the project's Web site, not one has chosen a children's book. A few have an additional title for children.

It wouldn't be hard to do here. Our library already has an impressive series of book discussions year-round, which is even more important than picking one book a year. This month more than 20 books are on the agenda, including James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter.

Still, the "One City, One Book" project is a good thing for a city, or, in our case, a county, to do. It shows a level of interest in ideas, in stories presented in a medium that is not flashy or easy. It's an opportunity to give us a little push toward a new book we didn't know about or hadn't yet read, or a classic.

Last year Pinellas County's project, its first, chose Peter Matthiessen's Killing Mister Watson, a 1990 novel whose story interplays with Florida's environment. Pasco County chose John Steinbeck's classic, Of Mice and Men, in part because of its relevance to migrant workers in that county.

Other cities have chosen classics like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird or contemporary work such as The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks. A couple of my favorite contemporary novels turned up: Plain Song by Kent Haruf and Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat.

New York wanted to read one book, but since it's New York, they couldn't agree on a title. Deadlocked over Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee and James McBride's The Color of Water, a memoir of an interracial family, in both cases someone was afraid of offending someone. Too bad. Political correctness shouldn't be a criterion. And, besides, there's always next year to pick another book.

Maybe Tampa will do so. And that time around, pick a book for adults.

There's too much of a feeling in this city that things like art and reading are for children. How many times have we heard we should get behind the new art museum because it will be so wonderful for children? And there's too little feeling here of an intellectual community for adults.

By the way, in the arts forum last month, Pam Iorio said that when a Tampa writer gets a book published, she -- as mayor -- will throw a book signing party.

It's a start.

-- Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. She can be reached at tampa@sptimes.com . City Life appears on Saturday.

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