Bristol Launches Community Reading Project

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(Host) There’s an effort underway to get people in one Vermont community to read the same novel this summer. As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, organizers hope to get the whole town talking about the issues the book raises.

(Zind) Community Reading Projects started four years ago in Seattle. Since then a number of other cities have followed suit. Organizers choose a novel and then encourage everyone in the community to read and discuss it. Many of the books chosen are historical in nature and deal with important issues. Bristol is the first Vermont town to get on the community reading bandwagon.

(Nancy Wilson) “We may well be the smallest community in the country to ever have done this. We’re hoping for a couple hundred people to participate. That would be really great.”

(Zind) Nancy Wilson is the director of the Lawrence Memorial Library in Bristol. Wilson says the town’s Community Reading Project was officially launched on July 4. She says organizers have chosen Water Witches by Vermont author Chris Bohjalian. She thinks Bristol readers will be captivated by the story and by the issues raised in the book.

Bohjalian says his novel uses dowsing and ski area development to illustrate a Vermont in transition:

(Bohjalian) “The notion that we have a wonderful agrarian heritage, the notion that we have a wonderful folk life tradition – dowsing – going conflict with modern ski resort management, the issues of development.”

(Zind) Bohjalian says in the past, Water Witches has been assigned reading for incoming freshman classes at the University of Vermont, as a kind of introduction to the state.

Wilson says the idea is to get people in Bristol talking to each other about the book:

(Wilson) “We’ll have a button for everyone who participates in the program that says ‘I’m reading Water Witches.’ We hope that will generate a conversation out in the community. Perhaps standing in line at the grocery store, you’ll see someone else with the button and you talk about where you were in the book and whether you liked it or not and things like that. So we’re hoping to generate a widespread community conversation about the book.”

(Zind) Not everyone likes the idea of a whole community in literary lock step. One New York City editor compared Community Reading Projects to the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Bohjalian disagrees:

(Bohjalian) “I love the notion that people can argue and debate books communally with a passion that we usually reserve for music and movies and sports and the World Cup Soccer Tournament!”

(Zind) At the end of the reading project, in October, Bohjalian will give a talk in Bristol. Organizers also plan a panel discussion on development and a presentation by a dowser.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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