Reading City

Mayor Karl Dean is serious about getting Nashvillians to read—and talk about—great books

by Susannah Felts

Life of Pi
By Yann Martel
Mariner Books
336 pages
$15.95

It’s a safe bet that many, many Nashvillians have more to say about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale now than they had last year at this time. That’s because Atwood’s classic work of dystopian literature opened the inaugural Nashville Reads program, a citywide initiative that began last fall. With a variety of events hosted at many different locations across several weeks’ time, Nashville Reads is designed to be the kind of book club anyone should be able to commit to.

Now the program is kicking off its second year with Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize. It is similar to other “one city, one book” projects across the nation, which began in 1998 when the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library (then directed by Nancy Pearl, celebrity librarian and bestselling author) launched the program with The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks.

This year’s festivities open March 2 with a talk and book signing by Yann Martel at the Nashville Public Library. Life of Pi readers will have many opportunities in the coming weeks to gather and discuss the book at libraries and bookstores around the city. Private book clubs are also invited to register with the program, which offers a downloadable discussion guide and other materials. Readers can submit their reviews of the book online, and Davidson County students are invited to enter artwork or essays inspired by the book into a competition that will award an iPad mini to the winner and Parnassus gift certificates to the finalists.

This initiative is but one of several ways that Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a champion of literacy efforts, is working to get more books into the hands of city residents. His “Share a Book” campaign encourages Nashvillians to read with one another and take advantage of the public library system’s wealth of offerings, while the Limitless Libraries program has helped to overhaul libraries at Metro schools, connecting them—and the students who use them—to the full Nashville Public Library catalog. In advance of the Nashville Reads kickoff, Mayor Dean answered questions from Chapter 16 about his hopes for these literacy initiatives, as well as his own love affair with books:

Chapter 16: Do you have a favorite moment from the citywide events surrounding The Handmaid’s Tale?

Karl Dean: During last year’s Nashville Reads, I led a public discussion of the book at Hume-Fogg High School. Teenagers and senior citizens alike joined me, and it was a magical hour. We were all drawn into contemplating this powerful novel and its alternate world. I was so impressed by each person’s engagement, interest, and willingness to express their intelligent and often very personal ideas and interpretations regarding a hard-hitting book. I was also impressed by their willingness to listen to the ideas of those around them. That time is my favorite because it was an example of Nashville Reads succeeding in its mission—getting folks across Nashville reading and then thinking and talking about what they read.

Chapter 16: Are there any new kinds of activities planned for Life of Pi that you didn’t try with The Handmaid’s Tale?

Dean: In the interest of avoiding any spoilers, I will answer simply, yes. We are still working with community partners to create and schedule activities across the city, and more are being added all the time. Life of Pi and The Handmaid’s Tale are such different books; they spark different topics and ways to engage. Life of Pi particularly lends itself to diverse events, and, unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, it will also be read by many young people.

Chapter 16: In keeping with the spirit of your “Share a Book” campaign, is there a book you’ve recommended to friends over the years more than any other?

Dean: Anything by Charles Dickens, especially David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities.

Chapter 16: Truthfully, were you a big reader as a kid? If so, who or what encouraged your interest in books?

Dean: Absolutely, I was always reading something. My early interest in books was probably rooted in two things—one intangible, and one tangible. Honestly, I loved learning about other people, other lives, other places, other ideas. The books I read just encouraged me to read other books. And I loved my town’s library, as a physical place. It was a beautiful, inspiring sanctuary, just as Nashville’s library is.

Chapter 16: If we were standing behind you in the library check-out line when you were a teenager, we would have seen you carrying:

Dean: Books of history and biography.

Chapter 16: What’s on your nightstand right now?

Dean: I’m reading The Patriarch, David Nasaw’s biography of Joseph Kennedy; Angelmaker, a novel by Nick Harkaway; and Francona: The Red Sox Years by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy.

Chapter 16: What is one title you haven’t gotten around to but feel you should have read by now?

Mayor Dean: War and Peace!

Published Tuesday, 26 February 2013