Chicago trying to get everyone to read 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

Monday, September 10, 2001

CHICAGO -- Chances are in the next several weeks somebody in Chicago is going to sit down in a coffee shop, on a bus or a park bench and notice someone nearby reading the novel "To Kill A Mockingbird."

At least that's what city officials, from the mayor on down, hope will happen. What they hope happens next is the person without the book asks the one with it what's going on.

What's going on is a Chicago Public Library program called One Book, One Chicago. For seven weeks, the library is trying to get as many Chicagoans as possible to read and talk about the same book at the same time.

To kick off what they say will be an annual event, library officials chose Harper Lee's powerful and deceptively simple novel about racism and courage. One of the most popular novels in American literature, a full 40 years after it won the Pulitzer Prize the book continues to sell close to a million paperback copies a year.

"We're hoping with this book to grab people's attention," said Mary Dempsey, the city's library commissioner. "We hope it will encourage not just people who read books but those who don't to pick up this book."

So far it seems the program is doing both. The library is hearing from librarians around the country as word spreads. And in the city's libraries, the book is "flying off the shelves," Dempsey said.

Perhaps more significantly, people are being spotted around the city reading the book.

"I just read it for a book club and when I heard about this I'm reading it again," said Maureen Kennedy, 50, of Chicago.

who was reading it on a bus in downtown Chicago on her way home from work at a consulting firm.

The next step is to talk about the book. Library officials and others want people to attend a re-enactment of the novel's dramatic trial, a screening of the Academy Award-winning film, and discussion groups at library branches, coffee shops and other locations -- even Internet chat rooms.

"It's a good book for discussion groups because it deals with issues not only of racial prejudice, but how human beings relate to one another," said Mayor Richard M. Daley, who counts the book as a favorite.

When she learned of the project, Lee, 75, who rarely speaks publicly and declined an invitation to Chicago, wrote to the library. "People of all backgrounds and cultures coming together to put their critical skills to work -- nothing could be more exciting," she wrote.

Kennedy said because of all the issues tied to white lawyer Atticus Finch's defense of a black man falsely accused of rape, what gets lost is what the book says about families.

"To me its a primer for parents," she said. "If there were more fathers like Atticus, treating their kids as people, we'd be better off."

One of the reasons city officials say they expect the program to be a success is that they are asking people to read not just any book, but this one.

"This is a book that so many people have been influenced by," said Claudia Durst Johnson, a former chairwoman of the English Department at the University of Alabama, who will discuss the book in Chicago next month. "And it continues to influence."

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