Reading program unites city, Toni Morrison in Chicago

By Brianna Wellen

Throughout the city, Chicagoans are often caught reading books in the park, on the el or in the classroom. Now the Chicago Public Library wants to make the collective book of choice Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy”—so much that they’re bringing the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize of Literature to Chicago to spread the word.

Chicago adopted the global “One Book, One City” program in 2001. The concept entered large cities with the goal of encouraging reading and creating community events around the chosen novel.

This year, the usual citywide initiative became a “Toni Morrison-palooza,” as put by Annie Tully, the program’s coordinator. Along with the typical events throughout the city, Morrison’s own public discussion will be the largest the program has seen.

Past “One Book, One Chicago” author discussions were held in the Harold Washington Library Center’s Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, 400 S. State St., which seats approximately 300 people. Morrison’s discussion spurred such a response that coordinators rented the Orchestra Hall at the Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., seating more than 2,000 spectators.

DePaul University’s English Department Chair Anne Bartlett hopes her students take advantage of Morrison’s insights and attend the event. She teaches a class based on the chosen book and sees this as a chance for her students to further dissect the more complex qualities of “A Mercy.”

“There’s a lot to talk about in this book, so I’m really interested to hear what she has to say [in response] to questions from students,” Bartlett said. “It will be wonderful for them to have a chance to meet her; she’s just one of our greatest living writers.”

A testament to Morrison’s high literary stature is the Carl Sandburg Literary Award being presented to her for enhancing public awareness of the written word. The presentation will be another monumental event in itself with Oprah Winfrey as the host and interviewing Morrison.

Since its inception, those behind “One Book, One Chicago” have wanted to choose one of Morrison’s novels, according to Tully.

The selection committee usually works two years in advance to ensure it finds the right book for the program.

“The No. 1 factor in selecting a book is just finding a really well-written book that will appeal to a broad audience and spur lively discussion,” Tully said. “When ‘A Mercy’ came out, it just seemed to have the right themes, the right length, sort of the right reading level for One Book, One Chicago.”

Programs following the kick-off also appeal to the city’s diverse community. Events go beyond typical book talks and range from discussions of themes involving race and multiculturalism to a genealogy workshop. Steppenwolf Theatre is also involved, presenting a staged reading of the chosen book.

To track the event’s success, local bookstores plan to share the numbers of copies sold of the chosen book with Tully.

Kristin Sohacki, a representative of Borders in the Chicago area, said sales in city stores usually increase by approximately 200 percent on the title, and in suburban stores sales more than double. Sohacki said Morrison is always a high seller, and her presence in Chicago could sell even more.

“It’s a great honor for her to come visit,” Sohacki said. “That’s just going to increase more visibility on the title and more sales.”

Even with Morrison at the center of this year’s program, the spirit of the event remains simple: bringing people together through reading. Tully hopes once the events start, the city will feel united by “A Mercy.”

“When I see someone riding the el reading the same book that I’m reading, or because of my job if I see someone reading the “One Book, One Chicago” book, it’s just kind of exciting to be a part of something,” Tully said. “Just to see that somebody else is reading the same thing, immersed in that same imaginary world as you is exciting.”

The opening event is Sept. 7 at 6 p.m. at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St. Toni Morrison’s discussion is on Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. at the Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave. For more information visit