I’m not sure why the titled it “Take a leaf out of book groups” in the paper, as that makes no sense to me, but here’s the latest musing anyway… (a link, and full submitted text below, as usual).
Over the summer every student, administrator and teacher at my son’s High School will read Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. Carefully selected I suspect for the timely themes of race and identity, this book will ignite conversations and spark debates around the campus. Curious, I decided to read the book too, and it prompted me to consider further the value of a common literature reading experience among a large group of people.
I have had the pleasure of being a member of an active book group in Hong Kong. We take turns hosting, providing a simple meal over which we earnestly discuss the book without a moderator or prescribed set of questions. Like many expatriate communities, the composition of our book group has changed over the years – currently more members of our original book group live in New York City than in Hong Kong – but we have always replenished with perceptive and literate women who love books.
Beyond the social aspect, the value of this group has been the broadening of mind and perspective that occurs as the result of reading books I never would have chosen myself, or didn’t even particularly enjoy after reading. When members share personal history, cultural references and academic expertise relevant to the book, my understanding and my appreciation for the book is always enhanced.
When children’s author Deborah Wiles visited Hong Kong the entire HKIS Upper Primary read one of her books to build enthusiasm in preparation for her visit. Children were able to discuss the book, gained confidence meeting the author and shared the experience with their peers. Unlike didactic work in which a book is assigned and taught by an instructor, this type of common literary experience is voluntary, undirected and intended for fun.
Parent/child book clubs are another way of connecting, bonding and sometimes broaching difficult or embarrassing topics through literature. Difficult circumstances faced by characters in a novel provide distance and hypothetical scenarios that are useful in initiating tricky discussions with children. These conversations offer insights from both parents and peers that can translate into real life lessons.
Sometimes common reading experiences expand beyond the personal network to larger communities. The One City One Book program started in Seattle in 1998 and has been embraced in some form or another by hundreds of cities around the world. The Library of Congress keeps a running list of these programs in the U.S., and the National Endowment for the Arts funds similar programs under the title The Big Read in some cities.
Oftentimes initiated and managed by public libraries, these programs encourage all community members and visitors to read a carefully selected title, and many host creative events to encourage discussion, bring the community together and enhance the reader’s understanding of the book and the underlying themes therein.
Selecting a single book that is both noteworthy, but does not offend or endorse any one group or ideal over any other is the most difficult element of implementing this kind of program.
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated eleven cities around the world as Cities of Literature. These cities embrace a rigorous process to demonstrate a unique and fervent appreciation and support for the creation, consumption, critique and celebration of all aspects of literature. Achieving this designation from UNESCO is an arduous process and a considerable honor.
Bookstores are closing all over Hong Kong and less than half of our city’s adult population admits to reading for pleasure. The benefits of reading for pleasure have been widely reported, but like getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, daily exercise and abstaining from harmful behavior, the advice is rarely heeded. Modeling reading is important for building young readers. Hong Kong might consider striving to be the next UNESCO City of Literature to encourage reading for pleasure and to set a good example for the younger generation.