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One Book, One State

If San Franciscans tried to choose a single book to read, we'd kill each other. Fortunately, it's been chosen for us.

Only one librarian I spoke to complained about the choice. "We'll do Steinbeck," she said, "but we may pick a different book. Grapes is so long and hard." Once I got over the irony of a librarian complaining about a book's length (my edition is 455 pages), I realized that she didn't yet understand the goal.

Another reason for the council's quick and easy process was that its members didn't ask for outside help. If they'd tried to choose a book by citywide consensus, Levak explains, "There'd have to be some kind of divine intervention." She goes on, "We just said, "Here's the thing we're doing; who would like to join with us?'"

The story of the book's choice is rather romantic. Associate Director Ralph Lewin was driving through Yolo County with his wife, Caitlin Mohan, when they started talking about the Chicago program. "We were on the road somewhat like the Joads," Lewin explains, "with our baby in the back" of the car, and they kept coming back to The Grapes of Wrath. He brought the idea back to the council, which unanimously approved the choice. "That was the book," says Levak. "That was unassailably the book."

Come May, the council will officially launch its campaign, inviting folks to read Grapesover the summer. "Our aim," the project notes read, "is to have thousands of people across the state reading the book and discussing the way their experiences as Californians resonate with the themes of the novel." In October there will be events and public programs, coordinated by local booksellers, festival organizers, and libraries. After that, the project begins handing out grants to individuals who want to tell and document their own California stories. Grapesmay be the only book the council ever promotes; choosing another isn't in the current plan, though it's not ruled out, either.

Far from "groupthink" or "political correctness," the choice is thought provoking. How did you -- or your parents or grandparents -- get here? Perhaps, like Steinbeck's Joads, you imagined "[t]he vineyards, the orchards, the great flat valley, green and beautiful, the trees set in rows, and the farm houses. ... The grain fields golden in the morning, and the willow lines, the eucalyptus trees in rows." Or not. Either way, skip the arguments about which book youwould have chosen and just read the damned thing. You might be surprised how much you like it.

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