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VOL. 132 | NO. 109 | Thursday, June 1, 2017

Reading With Purpose

Memphis Reads looks to 'build community and break down walls'

By Don Wade

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Books inspire movies all the time. And sometimes, one reading program emerges from another. So it was that Memphis Reads grew out of Fresh Reads, an initiative at Christian Brothers University.

Karen Golightly, an associate professor of English at Christian Brothers University, helped create the Memphis Reads program, a monthlong series of events to encourage reading books. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

The latest Memphis Reads community book selection is “The Book Thief” by Australian writer Markus Zusak and he will be giving three presentations in Memphis in September (more on the book and Memphis Reads in a moment).

But first, let’s go back to Fresh Reads. It has been part of CBU’s “First Year Experience” since 2011, when all incoming freshmen read a selected book and then hold discussions and other events throughout the year.

Karen B. Golightly, an associate professor of English at CBU and director of Fresh Reads, recalls the first book they read was Steve Lopez’s “The Soloist.” Technically, the name of the book was much longer: “The Soloist: A Lost Dream, and Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music.” The book, of course, inspired the film “The Soloist” starring Jamie Foxx as a homeless Juilliard-trained musician and Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez, a Los Angeles newspaper columnist.

Golightly says they wanted to bring Lopez to Memphis for events and discussions.

“We realized we couldn’t afford to have Steve Lopez come to CBU,” she said. “We needed to make it a communitywide program to get more grants and sponsors.”

Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief,” a New York Times bestseller for more than 500 weeks, was chosen as the latest Memphis Reads community book slection. (Submitted)

And thus Memphis Reads was born, with local partners that include Memphis Public Library, Rhodes College and Facing History and Ourselves, among others. Memphis Reads launched in 2014.

“Everybody has something to contribute,” Golightly said of the partners.

Memphis Reads 2017 is supported by presenting sponsor International Paper, with additional support from the Tennessee Arts Commission, South Arts, the National Endowment of the Arts, and Follett. Memphis Reads is also funded under a grant contract with the state of Tennessee. Other partners include Southwest Tennessee Community College, Shelby County Schools, Friends of the Library, the city of Memphis Parks & Neighborhoods Division, and The Southern College of Optometry.

“The Book Thief” appeared on The New York Times bestseller list for more than 500 weeks and has picked up several awards. The novel is set in 1939 Germany and tells the story of a young girl, Liesel Meminger, who befriends a Jewish boy named Max who is hiding from the Gestapo. Liesel, as a foster child, has her own nightmares. Liesel steals books that she shares with Max and other families during bombing raids.

“It’s a universal story – lessons from the Holocaust have echoes in terms of what’s going on around the world,” said Marti Tippens Murphy, director of Facing History and Ourselves. “It helps us to understand how we fit in with the larger human story.”

Said Golightly: “We try to choose books that appeal to a wide variety of audiences. We always choose a book with some sort of social issue in it, a cultural issue that can be addressed in a different way. It might be a panel discussion, or a documentary or an essay.

“We think it’s a way to build community and break down walls.”

Those walls, she says, exist in many forms. It’s everything from the way some Memphians drive everywhere in their cars while other residents remain dependent on public transportation.

“It’s socio-economic walls and racial and ethnic walls,” Golightly said.

Each year, Memphis Reads celebrates its chosen novel with a month-long series of book-related events, including panel discussions, art-related activities and film screenings. Zusak will give one presentation at a local high school and two free public presentations with book signings at CBU on Sept. 11 and Rhodes College on Sept. 12. Go to www.memphisreadsbook.org for details.

Two years ago, Memphis Reads selected “What is the What” by Dave Eggers. The book was a work of fiction inspired by the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the “Lost Boys” from the Sudanese civil war of the 1980s. Eggers, Golightly said, wanted to bring Valentino to Memphis for the public events.

“Rhodes College stepped up and paid for that,” she said. “This huge contingency of African immigrants came to our event. Valentino knew them all. It was like a big family reunion.”

And from all perspectives, a large community gathering based on a book of importance.

“Books are still around for a reason” said Tippens Murphy. “People still want to read books and then come together and discuss them and hear different points of view.”

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