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5000 Books—Post 1: the Idea

September 6, 2014

Several times in recent years I have thought that a situation would benefit from a community reading project. These occur when a large group in a community collectively reads and discusses a single book relevant to the issues they are struggling with. In the past, everything time I have thought deeply about such a project, I did nothing until the time and my energy had passed. But not this time, or at least not yet this time. What I am proposing is impossible for me to do, but if the idea is persuasive to others, it can be done, rather easily even. 

I want to give a copy of Ernest Gaines’s novel A Lesson before Dying to every teenager, young adult, police officer, and town council member in Ferguson, Missouri who would be willing to receive one. I have come up with the number of 5000 by looking at the census figures for Ferguson and Jennings (the community next to Ferguson with similar demographics). If you would like to know what I find valuable about this book for this purpose, please read my previous blog post about the novel itself.

Earlier today, I wrote to several members of the clergy in Ferguson presenting this idea to them. I haven’t heard back from them, but I am writing this posting early enough that they may not have yet seen the message I wrote. I may also have to persuade them that I am for real about this idea. If I persuade some people in Ferguson to work with me on this, then I will set up a crowd-sourcing fundraiser on some site like youcaring or indiegogo.

Online, I can find new copies of the novel for $7.88 and $8.03 at Amazon and Barnes & Noble respectively. If this idea takes off, I will contact the publisher directly to see what kind of deals we can make about bulk ordering and shipping. Without knowing precise figures, I will set a fundraising goal of $45,000, $9 per copy of the novel.

I am not going to do anything with this idea unless I have partners in the Ferguson, Missouri area. Let’s suppose that I get partners there.

  • I would consider this project a “go” if we can raise enough for 1000 copies, offering them to the high school senior classes on down until the copies have all been distributed.
  • If the fundraiser raises less than enough for 1000 books, then the money will instead be given to community social services.
  • 5000 is my estimate of the number of copies needed to have a copy for everyone I’ve listed above. If there are leftovers at that number, they could be distributed to other citizens of the community who would like to join in to a community reading project.
  • I am reluctant to believe that this effort would exceed 5000 copies . . . but what if it does? I would like to go back to what I didn’t do last year, and distribute some copies to some young people in Fort Wayne along with, potentially, working with First Presbyterian Theater to allow them to attend the upcoming play performance of A Lesson before Dying. Then I would say to let the project radiate outward from Ferguson and Jennings into St. Louis. It’s beyond my wildest belief that we’d ever reach it, but I would consider stopping if this project were to reach 10,000 copies, but I’d listen to the advice of others.

This idea could fail entirely. I don’t think I am the best person to take the lead on something like this—I would rather be a person contributing to something like this. But the idea is based upon what I have seen working with using Shakespeare in prison: If we respect people’s humanity and share stories with them, and let them share themselves as well, then we will live in a better world, one where the troubles in Ferguson and Jennings become less likely.

I see this effort as offering a gift from the contributors to the Missouri communities. If they want it, I think this can be followed up with community book discussion groups. I am fairly certain I can find some professors and others from the Midwest would be willing to go to Missouri for a few days to participate in discussions of the novel.

Now, there’s the basic layout. I don’t know if this will work. It scares me more than any other idea I have ever had, because failure is not only an option but a distinct possibility. But I think I would one day kick myself if, finally, I had never once taken a chance on something like this actually working. So, I will wait to hear a response from Ferguson . . . and we will see what will happen.

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