Now Read This

One book. One brain. One big marketing scheme?

And just think of all the candles and greeting cards those folks buy, too.

So is The Spike just a killjoy? The bookseller concludes, "You can partake or not partake. It's a victimless crime."

Wondering what others thought, The Spike contacted Arizona's literati, which took about two hours. The general consensus: One Book AZ good, Barbara Kingsolver good -- starting with Kingsolver herself.

Kingsolver gushes over the reception she got in Kentucky, for that state's One Book fete. "It impressed me that a novel can bring so many different kinds of people together," she says. "I think the great thing about literature is that it takes us outside of our own lives."

As for the complaints about her politics seeping through her stories, Kingsolver says, "I think any novel you could possibly find to recommend to readers will espouse some moral point of view, some political point of view, because that's what fiction does. Fiction is inherently political."

Mary Sojourner, a Flagstaff writer (her new book is Bonelight: Ruin and Grace in the New Southwest) and frequent commentator on National Public Radio, is concerned that there will be only one book a year. She'd prefer to see one a month. (The Spike agrees that if you're going to have a One Book program, you need to introduce new materials all the time.)

Tucson's Tom Miller, whose latest book is Jack Ruby's Kitchen Sink: Offbeat Travels Through America's Southwest, thinks One Book AZ is a great gift. "Everybody reading a book. That would raise the literacy level of the state of Arizona," he says.

As for Kingsolver's politics? "Books that offend, so much the better. If you want to avoid controversy, why don't you choose The Joy of Cooking?" Miller asks.

The Spike had a nice, long chat with Ron Carlson, a professor in the MFA program at Arizona State University and a master of the short story -- his latest collection is called At the Jim Bridger.

"Really, I'm fine with it," Carlson says of One Book AZ . He calls it this generation's Book of the Month Club, a return to a time when folks gathered round the water cooler to talk about books like Exodus.

More than 150 new books are released every day, Carlson says, adding that people don't even watch the same television shows anymore. (The Spike takes exception; The Osbournes, MTV's highest rated show ever, is certainly the topic of the season, and no one "assigned" it.)

"We're looking for a kind of cultural town square where we can meet and talk about the same things," Carlson adds.

Now The Spike was starting to feel downright bitchy, and so turned to New York City for a boost. That metropolis has been embroiled in controversy for weeks -- so tough was the choice of One Book that finally the librarians and booksellers dropped out of the game, allowing a scary-sounding organization called The New York Women's Agenda to make James McBride's The Color of Water the choice for a now rather flaccid program.

Surely, The Spike thought, some New Yorker will agree.

Two editors at the New York Times Book Review, a professor at Columbia University and a writer named Phillip Lopate who had told the New York Times that One Book programs reminded him of Invasion of the Body Snatchers all rebuffed The Spike's attempts to chat about the ills of One Book AZ.

So The Spike will share a favorite quote from the New York Times, this one from Yale University Professor Harold Bloom: "I don't like these mass reading bees. . . . It is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once."

That made The Spike feel a little better, but things really looked up when Chuck Bowden called back. Bowden, a madman of a writer who lives in Tucson (obligatory book plug -- Blues for Cannibals: The Notes From Underground was published earlier this year), understood The Spike's point. Maybe not quite as strongly, but close.

"I think it would be a nicer country if people read more and watched less television," Bowden says. "But this has become a holy crusade. . . . Bad enough we all watch the Super Bowl."

He was just getting warmed up.

"The only place I ever knew that had a successful one-book reading program was Chairman Mao's China. I don't think it's going to hurt anyone if everybody in the state of California reads Grapes of Wrath, but it would be better if they all independently read different books and got together and talked."

Bowden likes Kingsolver. He's never read Animal Dreams, but calls his fellow Tucsonan "a credible choice. . . . She's a legitimate, widely read, widely admired writer."

But he takes exception to the choice of an Arizona author for an Arizona audience.

"To be fair, I think people in Arizona might benefit if they knew something beyond their own goddamn state," Bowden says. "What about Flaubert?"

In general, Bowden says, "assigned reading" is just not his bag. Chilled his heart in school, and now he's not thrilled with the idea of "political-type entities picking books that are good for us. . . . Actually, I like to read books that are bad for me, that fuck with my head."

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