One Book Can Change a City

One Book One New Orleans is a campaign for literacy and community where New Orleans residents share the experience of reading the same book at the same time. The city has many great writers but its adult illiteracy rates are troubling. I had an opportunity to speak with One Book One New Orleans’s executive director Megan Holt and ask a few questions about the organization’s mission and how reading books together can build community. Megan and I have worked together at the Words & Music Festival for the last two years but most importantly, we are friends that share a love for motherhood and literacy.

Can you tell us a little bit about the mission of One Book One New Orleans?
One Book One New Orleans selects one book each year for New Orleans residents to read. We make an extra effort to ensure that our selected book is accessible to all adults. Through a network of community partners, we get the book, as well as a curriculum for the book, into adult education classes, adult ESL classes, HiSET classes, educational programs in juvenile justice centers, and prisons. We also arrange for the book to be recorded and broadcast for the blind community. Finally, we host a series of free, family-friendly events inspired by the book.

Why is it so important to get the whole city of New Orleans reading?
Often it feels that New Orleans is a city divided—by education level, by socioeconomic class, by neighborhood, by race. Bringing people from different walks of life together through a shared reading experience can be the first step to realizing that we have more in common with one another than we thought.

How can reading as a city transform New Orleans?
Increased adult literacy is linked to lower poverty rates, lower crime rates, lower domestic violence rates, better chances of securing a job that pays a living wage, better health care outcomes, and increased participation in the democratic process. These effects then get passed on to the next generation. While it would be overly simplistic to say that reading together as a city is a magic cure-all for some of the struggles our city faces, coming together certainly can serve as a catalyst for change.

What are some of the books the city has read together in the past?
Our first book in 2004 was A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines. The last few years we’ve included titles such as Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans by Louis Armstrong, Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker, and Counting Descent by Clint Smith.

What’s the book for 2020?
New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader
edited by Kalamu ya Salaam.

One Book One New Orleans executive director Megan Holt. (Credit: Paula Burch-Celentano)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.