Can You Really Have a Book Club for Eight Million People?
On the Inaugural One Book, One New York Project
In early January 2017, bright, colorful banners of grinning television personalities holding novels started popping up on the walls of New York City subway cars. The advertisements announced “One Book, One New York,” a joint venture between the Mayor’s Office for Media and Entertainment and digital media company BuzzFeed. The campaign’s tagline, “Aiming to get all of New York on the same page—literally,” outlined its simple premise. “One Book” was to be the largest book club in history.
The idea is not as new, or as strange, as it sounds. Community reading programs are nearly two decades old. In 1998, Seattle introduced the concept, and four years later, Chicago followed. Since then, interest has exploded. Today, the Library of Congress estimates there are more than 400 programs across the country. In an interview with WNYC, Commissioner Julie Menin says Chicago’s program inspired her to bring One Book to NYC. The motivation was partly economic: “Other cities that have done One Book programs… have seen enormous spikes in sales of that particular book. Right now, we have about 65 independent bookstores in the city. The Bronx has no bookstore. Staten Island has one. These bookstores are under threat of closure, and one important economic reason we want to do this program is to… make sure that people visit their local bookstore.”
It wasn’t the city’s first attempt. In 2002, the idea died in committee when no one could agree on a book. This time, allowing New Yorkers to vote circumvented that obstacle. Five finalists—Between the World and Me, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Americanah, The Sellout, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—were selected. In February, after 50,000 votes were cast, the 2013 novel Americanah by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was declared winner.
Then the work—and reading—began in earnest. The Mayor’s office released a calendar of events taking place throughout spring and summer. Penguin Random House donated over 1,500 copies to the city’s libraries and developed a guide for book clubs. Digital subscription service Scribd made an audiobook available free for 90 days. But these were just resources. The question remained: would people participate? “Somebody recently described New York to me: it’s not one big city, it’s actually a ton of small towns, smushed right up against one another,” says Isaac Fitzgerald, BuzzFeed’s Books Editor.
If that’s true, then how, exactly, do you get eight million people on the same page?
In the Bronx, it isn’t so easy, according to life-long resident Noëlle Santos. Santos is the entrepreneur behind crowdfunding project The Lit.Bar, the first independent bookstore in the Bronx in six years, and the only bookstore in the borough since Barnes and Noble shuttered its branch there in 2016.
Santos was invited to the launch party for One Book, but since then, she hasn’t seen much visibility for the program in the Bronx. The problem is, without bookstores, “There’s no space to bring readers together. I’m sure that people are participating, but I just haven’t seen it, because I’m the only one throwing literary events right now.” Calling the Bronx a “book desert,” Santos says residents must travel to other boroughs to participate in literary events. “We’re out here, and there’s people reading Americanah, and we’re participating in One Book, One New York. But we’re going to other places to share. That’s why I’m not seeing it.” [Note: the NYPL did host several One Book events in the Bronx.]
Santos herself didn’t participate in One Book, and she hasn’t read Americanah yet. Her reading time is limited. She works full-time, is getting her bookstore up and running, and organizes one of the largest book clubs in the city, “Readers and Shakers,” with over 400 participants she affectionately calls “my girls.” Santos considered choosing Americanah for her club, but the book’s age was a factor. “My girls are readers, and most of them have already read it.”
Still, Santos thinks One Book is a great concept. “I would like to see a bigger presence, as far as promotion,” she says. What she has seen on social media is sparse. “I get all this activity on my tweets, but when I post about [One Book], I don’t get the same response as I do on everything else… do feel like [The Bronx was] left out, but with cause. How else would they do it? I’m sure our libraries are stocked with it, but what do you do when there’s no hub?”
In Brooklyn, where there are many “hubs,” it’s a different story. Author Emma Straub, who recently opened the Cobble Hill independent bookstore Books Are Magic, says they can hardly keep Americanah on shelves. “I think people like to buy novels they think have been deemed ‘great’ by several bodies of people—in this case, the book got great reviews AND was chosen for this city-wide reading project. So I think people are more inclined to take a chance on it that they might not otherwise.” She says Adichie is having a “moment.” “We sell so many copies of Dear Ijeawele and We Should All Be Feminists. She’s really striking a chord.”
Susan Hwang and Jessie Kilguss, of the Bushwick Book Club, were approached by the Mayor’s Office to become an official event for One Book. Since 2009, their club has performed nights of original songs based on books. Hwang resonated with Americanah’s immigration narrative, particularly the idealism of America. “I was born in Seoul, South Korea. My family came here when I was about three,” she says. “We were always told we came here for an American education, and I never really understood that… Koreans got a pretty good education. So there was always a reason that was never explained to me why we came here. We weren’t hungry, [my parents] had a comfortable life. And yet my father decided to give up everything and start again with nothing.”
Hwang and Kilguss hoped the program would bring new audience members to their event. But on the night of their sold-out Americanah show, Kilguss asked who was there because of One Book, and only three people raised their hands. “As far as bringing in new audience members, that didn’t really happen,” she says. “Maybe it will take time to gain momentum.” If the program continues, Kilguss would like to see more people get involved. “I have seen a lot of people on social media reading the book and excited about the book. I think I’ve seen that because I’ve been looking for it. I feel like a lot of New Yorkers don’t really know about it. It would be great if it kept building.”
At the Center for Professional Education of Teachers, educators utilized an existing relationship with Riker’s Island Correctional Facility to lead a One Book reading club for female inmates. They led four sessions of discussion questions, small group work, and creative activities like identity mapping and redacted poetry. CPET is also working on an Americanah curriculum for teachers to use in the classroom in the fall. Roberta Kang, CPET’s Initiative Director, says, “[One Book] is rolling out in April and May; there’s not a lot of instructional time left in the school year to read a 350-page book. We wanted to make sure to have something online and available for teachers to download before the end of the school year, and we’re on target to do that. That way, people will be set up to teach the book in the fall.”
Some teachers are already teaching Americanah in the classroom, however. For Brittany Long, at Democracy Prep Charter High School in Harlem, the novel’s selection was fortuitous. A fan of Adichie, Long chose Americanah for her juniors and seniors to read long before One Book was announced. When she saw the subway ads, she leveraged the program to get her class excited to read it. “It definitely helped with some buy-in in class, because they felt like everyone else in New York was reading something that they were reading, too.” But Long adds that One Book wasn’t what ultimately got her students excited about Americanah. “The majority of my kids are African, so they could relate to the book a lot. Not just because of the immigrant experience, but because the book is so modern. She’s speaking about things that happened a few years ago… so everything seems more familiar.”
At first, Long admits she didn’t fully understand what the ads were for. “Someone had to explain it to me,” she says. She didn’t vote, but she did take her students to the final One Book event at the NYPL, where Fitzgerald interviewed Adichie on stage. One student fasting for Ramadan went an extra hour without food just to hear Adichie speak. When another asked a question during the open forum, Long says the girl “had to tell everyone in school the next day that Chimamanda spoke directly to her. All the kids had to retell the story, every part of it. They were so excited to meet her and to see her.”
In South Ozone Park, third grade teacher Sharice Richards also read Americanah, though more for the communal experience. “I saw the ad on the train, and I like to read books that other people are reading,” she says. Richards hoped she’d see a lot more people reading on public transportation, and that she’d strike up conversations with strangers. For her, that didn’t really happen until one of her last days with Americanah. “Someone finally asked me on the bus, ‘What is that book about? I see a lot of people reading it.’ It was the stop right before I had to get off, so I just gave her a quick synopsis.”
Richards voted online and checked out her copy from the local library. She didn’t get to any events, but would like to next time around. This was her second attempt through Americanah—she tried reading it previously, but had to stop when she got busy with grad school. That rediscovery is just the sort of thing Fitzgerald hoped would happen. “What I love about One Book New York is that it gives people a chance to come back to a book they’ve been meaning to read,” he says. “[It’s] a nice way as a city to take a step back and say, ‘Here’s a book from a couple years ago that maybe has been floating around your to-read list, but you haven’t gotten around to sit down to do it.”
For Richards, even though she didn’t see as many strangers reading the novel as she hoped, it did help her with empathy. “I have a friend who’s an international student from Nigeria, and I felt like the book helped me understand her a lot more. There’s so much to learn when you meet a new person. To really understand a culture, you have to know so many different things. Reading books helps with that if you can’t go to the country personally.”
Beth Gorrie, Executive Director of Staten Island OutLOUD, had trouble getting her organization’s event recognized. After stumbling across One Book on Facebook, she says, “I tried to get in touch with the city agency that’s running it, but I couldn’t get anywhere.” Still, that didn’t stop her from hosting an Americanah reading at the independently owned Everything Goes BookCafe in May. “We had a very nice turnout and lively conversation. The book is marvelous; she’s a very interesting writer.” Katie McCarthy, a bookseller at the cafe who listened to the audiobook through Scribd, says almost all the copies of Americanah she ordered for the event were sold. “I think it’s a great choice for a community read, especially in a place like New York, where so many people can relate to the experiences described in the book.”
Gorrie mentions that her organization, which is all volunteer, has been participating in the NEA’s The Big Read for eight years. A national version of community reading, The Big Read supports 75 individual community reading programs designed around a single book selection. So for Gorrie, One Book was nothing new. “This is something that the NEA has been doing for quite awhile,” she says. “It’s a competitive process, and once you’re chosen to participate, they provide some really great resources and foster collaborations among the various presenters.”
Both McCarthy and Gorrie say they’d like to see another One Book program in the future, but wish to be more involved the next time around. “As a local, independent bookstore, I would love to help promote the concept in the future,” McCarthy says. “If materials were sent to me, I would help get the word out.” Gorrie adds, “If they’re going to do another One City, One Book project, they really do have to be responsive to the community groups that want to participate and support.”
So was the program successful? It depends whom you ask, and how you measure success. “For pulling it together for the first time, it truly did feel like a success,” Fitzgerald says. “I think just getting it done, period, was a success. But it’s almost always moving goal posts. Now, for me, success is going to be that it happens again… that it becomes a tradition.” He credits the Mayor’s Office and his BuzzFeed team for working an “incredibly ridiculous” amount, but says that “The people who really made it happen were the hundreds of librarians, booksellers, and people throughout the city who were a part of this, not from a top-level thing, but on the ground, running book group discussions.”
Clearly, not everyone’s One Book experience measured up to expectations. Marketing materials of train cars packed with readers were more optimistic than realistic. Still, no one I spoke with said One Book was a bad idea. Everyone universally agreed it was a great program; thoughts only differed on how it can improve. Some felt that improvement wasn’t necessary at all.
The numbers, too, are promising. Monthly checkouts for Americanah at the NYPL doubled between March and May, from 341 to 687. At the Queens library, print copies of the book circulated 217 times in February, but increased to 1,113 checkouts between March and June. The eight Barnes and Nobles locations across the city saw a 400 percent increase in sales of Americanah, and Scribd downloads for the novel increased by 1,510 percent. Additionally, 500 people attended the culminating event between Fitzgerald and Adichie. Obviously, people participated, though perhaps not as visibly as hoped.
While the outlook for a second year is good, Fitzgerald admits, “As with any kind of project like this, there’s always going to be more that could be done. And that’s why I think it’s so important that this one got off the ground. When we have a meeting about what the next one looks like, it’s not going to be trying to build it from scratch. It will be, ‘Okay, how can we make sure we have a bigger and better presence?’”