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Eat your words: Saratoga Reads! participants share a potluck dinner.

photo:Kathy Ceceri

On the Same Page

Here’s a novel idea. What if everyone in Saratoga Springs read the same book?

Actually, the Spa City is a latecomer to the concept of a citywide book club. In Seattle, the Washington Center for the Book began its own read-along in 1998, two years after Oprah began making bestsellers out of books that would normally not be considered beach or airport fare. Since then, same-city-same-book programs have sprung up everywhere from Boise, Idaho, to Bangor, Maine. With names like “On the Same Page Cincinnati” and “What if All of Austin Reads the Same Book?,” these programs aim to get communities talking together about subjects a bit more esoteric than school budgets and water boards. And they seem to be working.

The books these cities select—Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson—are often chosen for their topicality, with the result that the same books are being read in a number of places in a given year. (The other favorite criterion is a regional tie to the author or setting; one such pick is One Book New Jersey’s selection of The Hoboken Chicken Emergency by Daniel Pinkwater.) The organizers of the Saratoga Reads! program decided to go to the public for nominations.

“We wanted more community ownership than Saratoga Reads! ownership,” explained Tabitha Orthwein, a member of the original steering committee.

Once the suggestions were in, a Selection Advisory Group of arts and education leaders from the community narrowed the number down from 120 to 15. Then two public votes were held to whittle that down still further, until this year’s book, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, was named the Saratoga Reads! choice for 2005. Unfortunately for the city, Hosseini’s story of two boys in his native Afghanistan has been so popular among similar book programs this year that local organizers have pretty much given up any hope of having the author visit before the program’s planned finale in May.

The Kite Runner opens before the Soviet invasion and follows Amir, the timid son of a prominent businessman, as he grapples with his place in the town where he was born and later in America, and his troubled relationship with his childhood friend and servant, Hassan. Although simply written, it is an intense story with mythic overtones that is hard to cozy up to. Even so, indications are that Saratogians are, indeed, reading it. The 100-or-so copies owned by the Saratoga Springs Public Library are almost always out, according to librarian Shobhan Parthasarathy, who also made up three “book kits” containing 10 paperback copies and background material for loan to book groups. Melinda Fant, a supervisor at Borders Bookstore and Café, said staff there is talking up the book, which is “selling briskly.”

The impetus for Saratoga Reads!, said Phyllis Roth of Skidmore College’s English department, was a stay in London during the UK Big Read a couple years back, when she turned on the BBC to watch two sportscasters hotly debating the merits of Jane Eyre versus Wuthering Heights.

“It was totally dazzling to me,” she said.

Last spring, she ran the idea past Marie Glotzbach, the wife of Skidmore’s new president Philip A. Glotzbach, who helped put together a steering committee of “movers and shakers” around town. Since then, participating groups have taken it on their own initiative to organize events related to the book and its setting. These have included a three-session mini-course offered by the Academy for Learning in Retirement, led by a former Peace Corps volunteer who had worked in Afghanistan, and a talk and meal of Middle Eastern and Afghan food, hosted by some first-year students at Skidmore College. The Saratoga Springs High School Student-Teacher Book Group discussion of The Kite Runner was reported on by The Saratogian’s book club columnist Susan Van Raalte.

Even young kids got into the act last Saturday, with a kite-making workshop led by children’s book author and illustrator Bruce Hiscock at the library. In Afghanistan, kite flying is a blood sport: Children coat the kite string with glue and powdered glass to cut down the kites of their opponents, then run through the streets to collect their booty as it falls. Hiscock talked about the tradition, but (to the disappointment of the boys there) made standard kites with the 40-or-so participants.

The workshop was followed on Sunday by an Afghan potluck luncheon attended by about 70 readers, which included Skidmore students and members of area book clubs invited by Van Raalte. The Friends of the Saratoga Springs Library researched the recipes, which resulted in a buffet full of puffed bread, sweet potato, lamb and rice dishes. Afterwards, Skidmore lecturer Marc Woodworth and local writer Marianne Finnegan facilitated discussions among each table, centering on the structure and symbolism found in the novel.

“It really is a wonder the way this is melding the college and the community,” noted Randy Royka, whose wife, Kathleen, is on the board of the Friends. “Normally, I’m a guy, I don’t read many novels. I really enjoyed this one. I couldn’t put it down.”

Future events include a slide presentation on April 12 at the Saratoga County Arts Council by photojournalist Connie Frisbee Houde, who traveled to Afghanistan two years ago, and possibly a screening of related movies by the Saratoga Film Forum. Skidmore is planning activities in conjunction with its May Day Celebration. Then, organizers hope, the process will begin again.

“It’s been interesting figuring out how to get the program off the ground,” said Orthwein. “It’s been a hard concept for people to get their arms around. For a second year, I think it would really grow.”

—Kathy Ceceri

 

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