Every year in a Columbia Public Library conference room, a panel of about 15 people gathers, surrounded by stacks of books. They are confronted with a daunting task: to go through about 200 books and decide which one the Columbia and wider Boone and Callaway County communities will read over the summer.
The reading panel members represent various parts of the local literary community: English professors, library employees and of course, avid readers. They represent One Read, a community reading program sponsored by the Daniel Boone Regional Library that celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2021.
Although this year’s One Read has concluded, nominations for 2022 opened Nov. 1. Anyone can submit a nomination at a DBRL branch, bookmobile or online through Nov. 30. Members of the selection panel will consider whether the nominated book is thought-provoking, encourages discussion, appeals to a diverse audience and is available in many formats, such as paperback and audiobook.
The past two decades of community reading stems from a single conversation on David Lile’s KFRU morning talk show. He was interviewing then-DBRL librarians Doyne McKenzie and Sally Abromovich when one of them mentioned a city where the community was reading the same book. “And so I kind of said, ‘Why doesn't Columbia do that?’” Lile says. “They took that idea, and they made something out of it.”
In the beginning, DBRL modeled its program after a similar one in Chicago. Since the current Columbia location was undergoing a remodel, the group initially met in the temporary library at an old insurance building on West Broadway. At that meeting, the group came up with a title and a plan.
Lauren Williams, current One Read co-chair, described a simple way she could tell One Read had grown to a recognizable pillar of Columbia: name recognition. In the beginning, she says, people would have to explain what One Read was and why it was important. By the time she joined in 2010, the program had grown to the point that people knew it based on name alone.
Abromovich and McKenzie had done a lot of base work by creating connections with various aspects of the Columbia community — Ragtag Cinema, the local colleges, county commissioners and the Office of Cultural Affairs, to name a few. Making these connections allowed One Read to expand its programming. In addition to the panel discussion, there have been movies shown at Ragtag, art exhibits, live band performances and more. By the time Williams took over as co-chair, it was “a community-wide program in every sense of the word," Williams says.
Deeper analysis, debate, discovery — it all happens at One Read, but none of it is possible without an open community willing to explore different backgrounds and perspectives of a book. “As a community, it provides a way for us to talk about things like poverty, about things like race, about class, but doing it through the lens of literature … I think it provides a space for civil dialogue,” Williams says.
These conversations, albeit challenging at times, have become a staple at One Read and what participants can expect when interacting with each other and the year’s selected book. In some years, One Read picks have coincided with events at the national or local level.
In 2017, the selected book was The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, a book about a Black family in Detroit. In the wake of mass student protests at MU in 2015 over the treatment of Black students, the book provided a springboard for some important community conversations, says John Evelev, an associate English professor at MU.
“There was more attention at that moment to some of the racial injustice," Evelev says. "And so it was interesting, and I think (a) helpful discussion to have in the community."
Meeting the authors of One Read picks has also provided for some memorable moments over the years. Both Lile and Williams recall meeting Jessica Bruder, author of the 2019 selection, Nomadland, at the author's reception at Orr Street Studios. The following year, Nomadland was adapted into an Oscar-winning film.
“It’s neat to think, ‘Wow, she came here, and we talked to her,” Lile says. “We stood around eating hors d’oeuvres or snacks, talking to this author who would have such success.”
The next morning when Williams drove Bruder to the airport, she says Bruder gave her a big hug and told her she was welcome at the author’s New York apartment, and that she could sleep on her couch anytime.
“You feel like you have these connections to these books,” Williams says. “It’s magical.”
As the program looks toward the future, many of the task force members share similar goals: further increasing numbers of participants and building on the momentum of the last 20 years.