Thursday, March 07, 2002

The "One City, One Book" program, a kind of mass book club in which each US city recommends a single book for all its residents to read, provides a fascinating glimpse into the current state of American culture. After all, the act of asking an entire population to do something--even a trivial, non-taxing activity, such as wearing a symbolic token or attending a large-scale event--inevitably carries with it an air of solemnity, and is rarely resorted to except in the service of some grand and noble cause, like fighting a terrible disease or a monstrous injustice. The choices of book for these public exercises can thus tell us what writings are viewed these days as important and uplifting enough to merit an appeal for collective action.

Not all that long ago, the vast majority of Americans, if asked to select one book to recommend to their entire city, would have thought it ludicrous even to consider any choice other than the Bible. (A plurality of Americans today would likely give the same answer.) Other citizens might have selected the writings of a revered religious or political thinker. Among intellectuals, the Bible would still likely have run first, but would have faced at least some competition from, say, Plato's Republic (among philosophers and classicophiles), or one of the texts associated with America's founding (among "civil religion" advocates), or perhaps "Hamlet" (among aesthetes). Some scientifically-minded freethinkers might have voted for "The Origin of Species", or some other foundational scientific work, with a few radicals perhaps recommending Marx or Rousseau or another famous iconoclast.

Yet here we are, in 2002, and New York has chosen to read an obscure novel about a Korean-American immigrant in Brooklyn. Chicago, Cleveland, and other cities picked "To Kill a Mockingbird"--a good novel, at least, and with an uplifting (if somewhat ham-handedly didactic) theme. Seattle, the pioneer of the campaign, started in 1996 with "The Sweet Hereafter", by Russell Banks (since made into a movie), and went pretty much downhill from there. Los Angeles selected Ray Bradbury's "Farenheit 451", a science-fiction novel about a future in which all books are burned, and the hero's purpose in life (forgive me for revealing the ending) turns out to be the preservation of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes in his memory for posterity. (Apparently, the book of Ecclesiastes itself contained insufficient wisdom to satisfy Angeleno readers.)

What about elite opinion? When Slate asked a number of writers to offer their "One City, One Book" recommendation, only one suggested a book that might legitimately qualify as inspirational: the Koran. (Presumably it would never even have been mentioned before six months ago; I guess nothing wins recommendations for a religious tract like the willingness of its adherents to slaughter thousands of innocents in a suicide attack. Let's hope nobody tells Pat Robertson.) A few recommendations came in for literary classics or near-classics (Dostoyevsky, James, Wharton, Dreiser and Ellison were the weightiest names on the list). A couple of writers, of course, simply took the marketing opportunity and flogged their own recent books. But a fair number followed in the footsteps of the cities, and suggested recent novels of highly dubious longevity.

Tom Wolfe once observed that in a secularized modern America, art has taken over several of the social roles once assigned to religion. But as the "One City, One Book" movement demonstrates, American art-as-religion has by now descended into the same empty New Age frivolousness that dethroned its predecessor. Is the long-predicted, oft-announced death of seriousness in America finally at hand?

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