The Benefits of Community Reading Programs

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Summer Loomis


Summer Loomis has been writing for Book Riot since 2019. She obsessively curates her library holds and somehow still manages to borrow too many books at once. She appreciates a good deadline and likes knowing if 164 other people are waiting for the same title. It's good peer pressure! She doesn't have a podcast but if she did, she hopes it would sound like Buddhability. The world could always use more people creating value with their lives everyday.

Community reading programs have always interested me. I like the idea of people from different backgrounds and experiences coming together to read something together. There is something so calming about people being capable of this. I find it very comforting. However, it can be hard to feel like we’re part of a community at times. So I went searching for community reading programs of the “one book one community” type. Below is some of what I found.

Some History on Community Reading Programs

According to the U.S. Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl started the first community reading program. She called it “If Seattle All Read the Same Book” and organized the first one in 1998. As someone who remembers the 1990s clearly, that doesn’t seem that long ago. However, the idea has had some time to develop and is still going strong.

In 2019 for example, Seattleites were reading The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui. That same year, Canada Reads was organizing debates around book nominations that included Lindsay Wong’s memoir The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family, and Abu Bakr al Rabeeah’s Homes: A Refugee’s Story. Al Rabeeah’s book is his experience of the Syrian civil war and eventual resettlement in Canada. Around the same time, New Yorkers voted on several choices including Nilda by Nicholasa Mohr and Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us.

Certain Titles Remain Popular

American modern classics often become community reading selections in the U.S. This isn’t all that surprising. Among these are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, and Rudolpho Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima. Other titles like these include Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.

More recently, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, José Andrés’s We Fed an Island, and Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl are all nonfiction titles that have been read together by different communities. One title I want to read is Claudia Kolker’s The Immigrant Advantage, which was chosen by Lone Star College (in Texas, in the U.S.) as one of its community reads. In fiction, Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jumpha Lahiri’s The Namesake, and Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine have all been popular titles. Likewise Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, and Tommy Orange’s There There have also been chosen by different communities.

Community Reading Programs Keep Expanding my TBR

As an adult, I read Lee, Bradbury, and Cisneros for the first time and loved reading many of the titles above (except for my copy of We Fed an Island, which I must admit is languishing—erm, waiting on my TBR). However, looking at this list, I am not sure how I have never read Bless Me, Ultima. Published in the 1970s, the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts calls it “one of the most critically acclaimed Chicano novels of all time.” Between about 2000 and 2007, it was chosen by ten different cities in seven different states as a common reading book. Obviously I need to move it up on my TBR.

Another writer whose work I continue to see here and elsewhere: Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. Four sisters, uprooted from their lives in the Dominican Republic and transported to the New York City of the 1960s, form the core of this novel. This sounds really good. I am sure that the good people who read it in five different U.S. cities over the 2000s would have something to say about it. I will have to add this to my TBR too. And another title that looks interesting is Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm by David Masumoto. It was chosen by several different communities in California and follows a year in the life of Masumoto, a third generation Japanese American peach and grape farmer.

And Adding Even More for My TBR

Thanks to various community reading programs, I have now added these titles above and also George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy (this should have been on my TBR since before it released honestly). To all these, I’ve furthered had to add Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow. For Rice’s book, I have the Kitchener Public Library to thank in particular.

I also have Johnson County, Iowa, to thank for adding Algerian writer Tahar Djaout’s The Last Summer of Reason to my TBR. Apparently it was chosen as the common reading book for 2001, and the blurb looks fascinating. The story revolves around Boualem, a bookseller who lives in an increasingly oppressive society run by a conservative party called The Vigilant Brothers. I may or may not have already bought a copy despite the fact that I have 231 paper books at home at this moment that I have not read. However, with a premise like this one, I can’t resist.

So that gives you a little background on community reading programs. If you’re still interested in more information on this topic, here are some innovative community reading programs to inspire you. If you’re more interested in how reading locally might help your community, you should read this.