Can a single book unite a city? A new campaign launched by the mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment in partnership with BuzzFeed aims to do just that. “One Book, One New York” kicked off Feb. 1 with the nomination of five books for New Yorkers to vote on. Accompanying events and a talk by the winning author will follow over the next few months. The nominated books are “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Díaz, “The Sellout” by Paul Beatty and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith.
The idea of a city-wide book club was first attempted about 15 years ago without success. “Members of a selection committee, self-appointed arbiters, found themselves unable to settle on a suitable work,” the New York Times reported in 2002. “They had narrowed the search to two finalists. ... Then the wheels came off the wagon, for a quintessentially New York reason: fear of giving offense.”
According to Julie Menin, commissioner of the Office of Media and Entertainment, the mistakes of last time helped guide the planning for the second attempt. “We certainly did not want to have [the same] issue,” said Menin, who spent Feb. 3 touring several independent bookstores. “So we had a really terrific committee of academics, a number of different cultural heads and representatives from the publishing industry, and we got a list of over 50 recommendations and then we whittled that list down to five.”
The accompanying ad campaign promoting “One Book, One New York” includes two jumbotrons in Times Square, ads on bus shelters, subways and LinkNYC kiosks, as well as celebrity clout lent by Danielle Brooks, Larry Wilmore, Bebe Neuwirth, Giancarlo Esposito and William H. Macy. The actors appeared in promotional videos discussing the project and the books they chose to sponsor. “My pick is near and dear to my heart,” Brooks says in one video. “‘Between the World and Me’ is relevant now more than ever before.” The publishers of each of the five books have distributed 4,000 free copies of them throughout the city’s more than 200 libraries.
According to Menin, the choice of these actors was a deliberate way of attracting fans of their TV shows — such as “Orange is the New Black” and “Madam Secretary” — to join the campaign. “We know that people will become obsessed with a series, and we wanted to encourage that same kind of attention and focus on reading,” she said.
The themes of the five book choices were similarly intentional. “These books are all largely about immigration, the sense of sometimes being an outsider,” Menin said. “Many of the books deal with topics of race. Certainly in this political climate that we’re in, a person cannot think of a better time for New York City to say ‘these are books that we embrace, and we embrace the concept of inclusion.’”
Menin added that she hopes that “One Book, One New York” will bring awareness to the importance of reading and having access to books. New Yorkers can vote online and at interactive kiosks in some subway stations until the end of February. Menin said that, so far, “thousands and thousands” of people have voted.
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org