Every now and then we get the urge to find the nearest rooftop so we can shout how lucky we feel to live in a community where people aren’t afraid to wrestle with complex, even painful issues.
We give a lot of credit to our local libraries, which provide a platform to do just that. (The wrestling. Not the shouting.)
For the past 11 years, the Pierce County Library System has sponsored the annual “Reads” program, a multi-neighborhood book club that’s spurred thousands of conversations over a variety of topics, mostly pertaining to American history and culture.
It’s called the biggest reading event in the state for a reason. Since its inception, selected books have been checked out of library branches nearly 50,000 times; more than 9,000 people have turned out to hear a featured author; and more than 13,000 have attended other Pierce County Reads events.
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Keeping with tradition, this year’s selected work doesn’t shy away from a difficult topic. “March,” a graphic novel trilogy, brings to life pivotal and iconic moments from the Civil Rights movement, including personal moments of anguish and sacrifice.
Congressman John Lewis recounts his memories of “Bloody Sunday,” the March 7, 1965 confrontation between Alabama state troopers and 600 peaceful demonstrators as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
The selection breaks new ground because Lewis’ stories are told through illustrations. Think comic book format with a lot more gravitas.
The book’s creators, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, will speak on May 11. They’ll discuss how the trilogy came about and why they chose this format. Lewis may appear with a special video message.
The annual Reads program gives participants four weeks to read the chosen book before launching into eight weeks of related programming at library and regional venues. The books become useful tools to discuss topics such as race, prejudice, gender roles and inequality.
Bring up one of those topics at an office get-together or a church potluck, and you might end up eating that plate of chips and guacamole alone. But in the confines of a book discussion, readers can speak openly about the struggles of people throughout history and the restrictions placed on them by social norms.
Pierce County Reads hasn’t always hit the bullseye. In 2009, the chosen book was “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace …One School at a Time, ” billed as a work of nonfiction by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.
There’s just one problem with that book: the fiction of it. Mortenson was later exposed for fabricating key elements and mismanaging tens of millions of dollars donated to the Afghanistan school-building cause he wrote about.
In 2016, library leaders chose Sherman Alexie’s body of work. Alexie’s stories have been credited for taking the stories of Native Americans out of school-room dioramas and giving them a modern voice.
Sadly, Alexie’s acclaimed work has been tainted by recent allegations of sexual misconduct. He’s issued apologies, but perhaps he, better than most, knows how empty those words must sound.
Still, we’re grateful his voice woke many of us up, which is what the best books do. We step out of our limited scope and see the world through the eyes of another person.
It’s why we encourage Pierce County readers to take the “March” forward this spring. These graphic novels present clear pictures of America’s past inequalities while holding up a mirror to our present ones. We would do well to look long and hard.
Pierce County Reads Kick-off event: March 15th
6:00 pm - 7:30 pm
Washington State History Museum
http://www.washingtonhistory. or http://piercecountyreads.org/about/