Now Read This

One book. One brain. One big marketing scheme?

The Spike nearly dropped the phone this week when Barbara Kingsolver called back. The Tucson writer has become infamous for her J.D. Salinger-esque disappearing acts, and she's been mum on the topic of One Book AZ, the group grope of a book club in which librarians invited the entire state to read Kingsolver's novel Animal Dreams.

Folks were critical when Kingsolver was a no-show at the One Book AZ kickoff event in early April; she'd agree to appear, but had a death in the family. She felt so badly about it, Kingsolver tells The Spike, she decided to return The Spike's call.

Kingsolver loves One Book AZ, loves that Animal Dreams was chosen, loves the whole thing. She loved it when they chose another of her books, The Bean Trees, for Kentucky's "What If All Kentucky Read the Same Book?" program.

Rand Carlson

So much love, so much love. The Spike has to wonder if this group hug of a reading group is such a good idea.

Now, you've got to know up front that The Spike considers an evening spent watching reruns of The Osbournes -- the MTV reality series featuring heavy-metal legend Ozzy Osbourne changing trash liners and hanging with the family -- an enriching experience.

But even this sofa slug reads. The pile next to The Spike's side of the bed currently includes The Nanny Diaries and a double issue of People featuring the world's most beautiful people. The Spike has three library cards and an Amazon.com box arriving nearly every week. So why would a bibliophile find a program designed to get others to read a book so troubling, so Big Brother, so downright un-American?

Because it's one book. In many places, one book a year. And you don't even get to pick it.

Our own One Book AZ is the copycat of equally creepy citywide and statewide book groups popping up all over the country. Our state was assigned Animal Dreams last month by a bunch of librarians; there will be a new book next year.

The notion started in Seattle several years ago, when a librarian decided it would be really cool if everyone read the same book at once, and discussed it. So Seattle read Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter, then Chicago picked Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and now newspaper columnists are calling the One Book thing "America's hottest intellectual trend."

A concurrent trend has sprouted, ironically, on television, starting with Oprah's Book Club and spreading like mold to all the morning news and talk shows. Even Kelly Ripa has created her own book club; she'll be recommending beach trash.

Ooof. Are things that bad? Are we, The Masses, really such uneducated idiots that we need assigned reading, even poolside? These book clubs -- both on TV and state-sponsored -- are not designed to teach people to read, or even to promote the love of reading among children. They are, The Spike suspects from reports of readings sponsored by Starbucks and promotional tote bags handed out by bookstores, a thinly veiled marketing scheme. Just think of all those Oprah Book Club stickers.

Worse yet, leave it to Arizonans to make an arguably less than worthy choice the first time out of the gate. (HarperCollins, the publisher of Animal Dreams, is listed on the One Book AZ Web site as a sponsor. See? Marketing scheme. A point for Kingsolver, however: She denied an interview request from The Arizona Republic, another sponsor.)

The Spike read Animal Dreams when it came out several years back, and enjoyed it. But that's beside the point. Of course The Spike liked Animal Dreams. It's a love story aimed at wannabe-hippie-chick-socialists -- The Spike never had a chance.

But what made Animal Dreams a fun and even inspiring read for a twentysomething woman makes it a bad choice for a statewide book club. Kingsolver's prose is cluttered with her far-left politics, often at the expense of her storytelling. (For example, a character quits cockfighting because it's the right thing to do -- arguably weakening the story, which could have benefited from the tension of a more realistic reaction.)

And The Spike has equally left-leaning associates in the book world who say that, while they personally liked the book, the love story's inappropriate for high school students and won't appeal to men. One bookseller acquaintance took part in a One Book AZ discussion group and found herself surrounded by Kingsolver groupies who refused to hear a negative word about their heroine.

"I think she's a great writer, but I've stopped reading her because I agree with her position," the bookseller laments. "But I don't feel like I need to be beaten over the head with it."

The numbers -- such as they are -- bear out the lack of male participation. Almost all of the facts and figures, including feedback from participants, aren't yet available. But the Arizona Humanities Council does have some preliminary numbers. Of six libraries the council has heard back from, 69 women participated, and nine men.

Hmmph.

On the marketing end, book sales have reportedly gone well. In a normal month, Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe sells between two and four copies of Animal Dreams. In April, the store moved 118. Other Kingsolver titles sold better, too -- The Bean Trees sold 55 copies; the norm is 20.

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