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.

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 Peoplefeaturing 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.

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."

And what if One Book AZ were to choose one of Bowden's books for next year's read?

"I'd think exactly what I told you, [but] I wouldn't complain about it," Bowden says.

Why not?

"Bad manners."-- As told to Amy Silverman

Spike us! Call 602-229-8451 or e-mail spiked@newtimes.com.

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