Reading for pleasure is enjoying a resurgence in popularity thanks, in part, to celebrity book clubs and the new crop of mega-bookstores around the country. Books can broaden your horizons, teach you about nearly any subject, or simply entertain you. But the Peoria Reads! project, now in its third year, has a slightly higher calling: bringing together a community through the written word.

Ensuring That Peoria Reads!

"Peoria Reads! is a one city/one book project instituted by Common Place and the Peoria Public Library in September 2001 to help cerate human understanding and promote reading," according to Peoria Public Library Public Relations Coordinator Trisha Noack. "A coalition led by these two organizations includes diverse community partners: schools, businesses, service organizations, media, and libraries."

Noack said Peoria Reads! is modeled after one city/one book projects first launched by the Library of Congress Center for the Book in 1998. "In cities around the nation, a coalition of organizations promote reading the same, significant book at the same time for residents of high school age through senior citizens. Readers then participate in events such as book discussion groups, appearances by the author, and other special events."

She said the goals of Peoria Reads! include bringing our diverse community together in ways to promote better understanding; broadening and deepening readers’ appreciation for books dealing with significant issues; bringing more people into libraries, bookstores, and literary institutions; increasing opportunities for discussion between youth and adults; and achieving a better understanding of ourselves and our own humanity.

"I think these goals are being met, although some results are difficult to quantify. Any time people find themselves unable to resist the pull of visiting a place filled with books to get a copy of the Peoria Reads! book or have a discussion with someone about the book, they’re helping us achieve our goals," Noack said.

In the two years since the inception of Peoria Reads!, Noack said community response has been positive. "In many cases, people participated in the public events, and in other cases, they simply read the book and talked informally with their neighbors, family, and co-workers. Some of the most important dialogue has been intergenerational-such as when discussion groups were held between high school youths and adults. Last year, the schools became particularly interested. This year, we have exciting new partners-like Opera Illinois, Methodist Medical Center, the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Jewish Federation-who are involving new groups of people."

The culmination of Peoria Reads! is always a visit from the author of the book, which Noack said is a consideration when choosing a prospective title. "When the selection of the book has been narrowed down to a few choices, the Peoria Reads! committee begins checking with authors to see who would be available to come. With that information and a feeling for which authors will be personable and enjoy meeting Peorians, an invitation is extended. So far, an author visit has always been part of the criteria, though other cities don’t necessarily rely on that."

Of course, choosing a novel for the program is based on more than just a personable author. "Almost as soon as one Peoria Reads! program ends, the committee begins work on choosing another book. In addition to looking for a book with a living author, they look for one that has a significant issue as its subject. The book must also be one that can be read by beginning adult readers. That isn’t to say it must be at a lower reading level, but that it can be easily read aloud in a group. In other words, it can’t be too long. The book must also be affordable to purchase and has to be an award winner," Noack said.

The 2004 selection, The Speed of Light by Elizabeth Rosner, won the 2002 Harold U. Ribalow Prize, received the Great Lakes College Association New Writer’s Award in Fiction, was a Hadassah National Book Club 2003 selection, and was a Book Sense 76 Pick in 2001, she said.

Because of the growing number of participants in the Peoria Reads! program, special preparations are made by area organizations. "Barnes & Noble and Borders are part of the committee, so they prepare by stocking up. The library purchases multiple copies and has them ready to go as soon as the choice is announced. In addition, Common Place orders plenty of books and has them ready for purchase. The Friends of Peoria Public Library donated $1,000 this year, as they have in the past, strictly for the purchase of books to be given through literacy programs," Noack said.

Other funding sources are found throughout the community. "The largest funder is the Peoria Empowerment Committee. Other major funders, in addition to the Friends of the Peoria Public Library, include Methodist Medical Center, Illinois Reading Council, Community Foundation of Central Illinois, Robert Morris College, and Illinois Central College," she said. "The total budget is about $20,000, with most money going for the author visit, books, and publicity."

Reading at The Speed of Light

Noack said The Speed of Light offers a rich tapestry of characters with differing experiences. "Three of the characters speak in the first person-each in a different typeface. But the book is peopled by other characters from the past who live on in memory. The main characters are Julian and Paula Perel, who are the children of Holocaust survivors. Julian is a scientist and lives life under tight control. He’s terribly reliant on his sister, Paula, an aspiring opera singer full of music and light. Both deal with the constant shadow of sorrow cast by the experiences of their parents-particularly their father. He, although dead, is a strong daily presence in their lives and in the book. The housekeeper, Sola, is from Central America and is a survivor of tragedies of her own. Paula travels to Europe and has Sola stay at her apartment to watch over Julian, and that’s the point when things begin to change.

"In the end it’s a hopeful, happy book, but it does deal with some very significant issues. Anyone who has parents who lived through a war or have other sorrows will identify with Paula and Julian. Those who might be of Jewish or Hispanic descent will find a common note, too. Scientists, artists, and those who work with their hands will all find a thread they can identify with and a doorway to understanding others," she said.

The previous two Peoria Reads! selections have been authored by fairly significant names in the literature world. The Speed of Light, instead, is by a new voice. "Elizabeth Rosner may not be a household name, but her book did win several awards, and she’s also a published poet. The committee felt this was the strongest and most viable selection," Noack explained.

She said there are a wide variety of public events planned to support The Speed of Light. "One of the most exciting is the event Opera Illinois hosts at 7 p.m., April 19, at the Grand Army of the Republic Hall. Not only will there be readings from the book, but a vocal performance as well from Margaret Swain, who reads for Paula, the aspiring opera singer. For those who are ready to discuss the book earlier, ICC hosts Travels Through Literature, featuring a panel discussion on The Speed of Light, at 7 p.m., March 23, at Lakeview Museum. March 30 is filled with Restaurant Talks. You can go to One World at 10 a.m., Panache at 2 p.m., or to Rhythm Kitchen at 5 p.m. to buy your favorite food and drink and enjoy a book discussion. Dave Koehler has agreed to host an Open Space Forum at 7 p.m., April 22, at Lakeview Museum. Another Open Space Forum is scheduled at 10 a.m., April 20, at the First Baptist Church on Lake Street."

Of course the highlight will be Rosen’s visit, which takes place April 28 to 30, Noack said. "On April 28 she’ll speak at 9 a.m. at ICC’s Performing Arts Center and will eat lunch in the cafeteria with students. Both events are open to the public. On April 29, there will be a breakfast with Elizabeth Rosner from 7:30 to 9 a.m. at the Pere Marquette. Tickets cost $20 and can be purchased by calling 674-3315. That evening, she’ll speak at 7 p.m. at the Peoria Public Library Downtown auditorium. That event is also free and open to the public. On April 30, she’ll visit area high schools."

This year, the Peoria Reads! committee is also fortunate to have an author visit from Marion Blumenthal Lazan, who told her story, with Lila Perl, in the book Four Perfect Pebbles, the official Peoria Reads! selection for middle school and early high school. "Marion is a Holocaust survivor who spent her teen years in Peoria and graduated from Central High School," Noack said. "Marion has spoken all over the country and brings a strong message of tolerance to her audiences. She’ll visit many schools while here the week of April 19-National Library Week. In addition, the Peoria Public Library Downtown will show a documentary about Marion’s life, Marion’s Triumph-Surviving History’s Nightmare, at 10 a.m., April 3, with a discussion following."

Noack said the library is encouraging neighborhoods and businesses to get into the spirit of Peoria Reads! and coordinate their own events. "To make it easy, we have two ’Book Club in a Bag’ sets available for checkout. Each bag contains eight copies of the book and information on book clubs and discussions."

Nancy Rakoff, executive director of Common Place, and Roberta Koscielski, head of Lakeview Branch Library, are co-chairs of Peoria Reads! and said the project has its share of joys and challenges. "They find it very interesting to work with such a diverse group and see human understanding occur as people touch lives with each other," Noack said. "The most challenging is what makes it the best: It’s always harder to pick a book, plan events, and get participation from a group so diverse that their only commonality is that they live or work in Peoria."

She said the end result of these events and discussions is, hopefully, a more connected, optimistic community. "We hope people will come away from this book with a feeling of hope and the knowledge that even when life hands you the worst there is, things can get better again. Of course, we also hope participants come away with a renewed interest in reading and a stronger understanding of others in our community." AA!