One Book, One Burg

by Garrett Zecker

paul-schafer-787418-unsplash (2).jpg

I searched my students’ eyes for recognition of a shared experience. “He enjoys the surprise on people’s faces when he tells them he’s a professor of American history,” I read of the Chinese-American protagonist in the opening pages of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. “‘Well, I am an American,’ he says when people blink...” 

The One City, One Book model of community engagement is generally accepted as having started in 1998 in Seattle with Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter. Many communities across the country have since found success in running such a program by creating a communal consciousness driven by one work and supported by inviting all citizens to read and participate in events, lectures, and discussions. Everyone is theoretically able to participate as physical, digital, and audiobooks are provided for free through grants, the public library, and public schools. While it isn’t meant to be a utopian lesson in social engagement, one can’t help but relish in the idea that everyone in the city might all have something in common for a brief period of time. 

I find it fascinating that programs like this exist at all. A recent Pew research study reported that twenty-four percent of American adults have not read a book in the last year. This includes print books, ebooks, audiobooks, any format of books available for consumption. Those with a high school education or less are five times less likely to have read a book (thirty-seven percent haven’t) in the past year than college graduates at any level (seven percent haven’t). In bringing together a community, in other words, organizers choose to come together with an activity that is only practiced by some of its members. In education, I can assign tasks to my students, but the same can’t be said about adults whose independent lives may not have room for the self-motivating, self-driven act of reading.  


Everything I Never Told You is the third annual community read for one of the communities I teach in, Fitchburg, Massachusetts. It’s a precise debut novel about a young woman who is found dead (no spoiler, really - it’s the first sentence of the book) and the various ways in which secrets, regrets, resentments, and expectations can all interact like ripples in the lake of time to lead to the destruction of a life. It is about a mixed-race family and how difficult it is to exist when everything feels undermined by your otherness. The characters’ complex motivations seem to collide in every chapter and drive the audience to a conclusion that seems to guarantee no one will escape the terrible repercussions of the young girl’s death. In some ways, no one in this novel is particularly innocent of leading the teen to her destruction. 

As this was only the third year the library and the university have engaged the public in this manner, and since I know the limitations of the activity itself, I thought my students should invite their nonparticipant neighbors to engage even if they weren’t aware of it. Students read the book independently, and in class we’ve examined Ng’s themes of youth, otherness, and secrets. They’ve examined these themes within themselves and their lives through a series of journaling activities. Their next goal is to hold a mirror up to their unseen lives through film, music, art, dance, and sculpture. Their work will soon be displayed around the city, the art museum, windows, and projections, and open the doors to their lives through their medium. They will then exist outside themselves. They will be proud of what they bare because they have survived their own traumas. Perhaps those consuming their work decorating our city, even simply walking by, will see something in themselves. Maybe their own regrets will be transformed by the images and sounds of their city’s youth. Maybe their expectations of themselves will grow, and in turn, foster growth in their neighbors. All this without turning a single page, but experiencing deeply that those in our city are all ‘we’ and so few of us are ‘them.’

I tasked my students with opening the pages of the book – and their hearts – to everyone in Fitchburg. 

Edmund Wilson famously observed that “no two persons ever read the same book.” I wonder if he meant something other than the metacognitive act of reading, and that a community’s consumption of the written word is less about the text and more about the people. A book’s themes, after all, are universal truths. Finding new ways to interact with those truths and to welcome everyone to face and grapple with them in any way will make us more of a community.  An empathetic community.  I wanted them to learn that, when we seem to have so many differences, it’s time to ask a friend, acquaintance, or neighbor to join them in their experience. Not just with the text, but as citizens. As creators, collaborators, and expressers. As humans sharing everything they never told you. They’re inviting you to do the same.