Commissioner Julie Menin with school kids. Photo courtesy of the NYC Office of Media and Entertainment
The book, though still undetermined, will be a singular sensation.
“One Book, One New York,” the nation’s largest community reading program, returns for a second year to unite citizens of the five boroughs through the universality of an individual book, read together. The program gives New Yorkers the opportunity to vote for one book among five nominated titles. Each nominee captures one world within our multifaceted city, from Brooklyn’s Navy Yard during World War II to early 1970s Harlem. The winner will be announced on May 3.
“No matter which book wins, they each celebrate New York City, and the love affair that these authors have with [it]. They speak about so many important themes, about immigration, inclusion, exclusion, really important issues, particularly in today’s turbulent political times,” says Julie Menin, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment Commissioner, which is sponsoring the program with New York magazine and Vulture,
The five nominees were determined by a group of literary scholars, professors and academics, and each book reflects a different neighborhood. While community reading projects that encourage people to read the same book at the same time are not new, New York is the only city that brings its citizens into the decision-making process.
“The public element of it is very important,” says Menin. “There’s no better way to have a civic conversation than to have New Yorkers engage directly, and to choose.”
Last year’s winner, “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, led to a unique “commonality of experience,” says Menin. “I can’t tell you how many people contacted us and told us, anecdotally, that they were on the subway reading “Americanah” and the person next to them was reading “Americanah.”
“One Book, One New York” also spawned something of a New York book club diaspora. Cities from across the country and in Germany, Israel and Turkey expressed interest in launching their own programs.
The program is designed to create an affordable, shared cultural experience; to that end, thousands of copies of the nominated titles will be available at the 219 public library branches throughout the city. The majority of the city’s many independent booksellers also participate in and benefit from extra foot traffic thanks to the program; they’ll stock extra copies as well.
Once the winner is announced, events throughout the city will celebrate the book and its author, who is likely to occupy a unique cultural position in a city known for its bookish inhabitants.
The curious can come for a sneak peek on April 19th, where as part of the PEN World Voices literary festival, a private reception and panel discussion featuring the nominated authors will be held at The New School. One presenter will be Barry Jenkins, whose film “Moonlight” won the Academy Award for best picture and is currently directing a film based on one of the five nominees, James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
Don’t have time to read through all the nominees before voting closes? The denizens of literary New York gave us the scoop on the nominees:
Behold the Dreamersby Imbolo Mbue
“‘Behold the Dreamers’ offers an interesting take on the American Dream. It takes place after the 2008 stock market crash and tells the story Jende Jonga, a recent immigrant from Cameroon, who finds himself the personal limo driver of a Lehman Brothers executive. The novel grapples with a part of the city that people try to avoid looking at — the inequality between the wealthy, and the people who are working for those with money, and how the issues facing the people like Jendge are much more significant than those of his employer.”
— Amy Ribakove, a bookseller at The Corner Bookstore
If Beale Street Could Talkby James Baldwin
“It’s my secret, favorite novel of Baldwin’s. This is just a wonderful novel about love and hardship in 1970’s Harlem — about messed up families and love and injustice. Tish and Fonny, the main characters, are madly in love. They become engaged, Tish becomes pregnant, and then Fonny is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned. It is not a light novel, but it is incredible.”
— Nick Buzanski, bookseller at Book Culture
Manhattan Beachby Jennifer Egan
“The gangsters may be the best part of “Manhattan Beach,” an elegantly written, absorbing work of historical fiction that takes readers back in time to the years before, and then during, World War II. It follows a flawed but loving dad who mysteriously disappears and his independent, gutsy daughter who’s determined first to support what’s left of her family and then to find him. Egan tours readers around the tenements in Brooklyn and the nightclubs of Manhattan, and from Navy Yard factories to warships at sea, never losing her grip on what’s most interesting about the story - and how the past can feel like, and teach us, about today.”
— Ester Bloom, Senior Editor at CNBC.com and a former book reviewer for Barnes & Noble
When I Was Puerto Ricanby Esmeralda Santiago
“I teach ‘When I was Puerto Rican’ in a literary seminar called ‘New York’s Literary Women.’ Students love Santiago’s book, not only because the writing is so readable and engaging, but because she paints such vivid pictures of everything from her childhood in Puerto Rico to her very first time being in New York. Many of my students are living in NYC for the first time, and while their individual experiences inevitably differ, there is something recognizable in Santiago’s melancholy story of leaving a beloved home and childhood to face an uncertain future.”
— Tahneer Oksman, Assistant Professor, Marymount Manhattan College
White Tearsby Hari Kunzru
“‘White Tears’ was maybe the book that most blew my mind in 2017. Kunzru’s examination of the history of blues music, the vivid characterizations of the main two young white male characters and their wanderings throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan, and their travels around Mississippi, felt at various times dead-on sharp, intensely terrifying, satirically humorous, haunting, and exhilarating. The book explores our nation’s history of racial violence, power and greed, and I think it’s especially relevant for our city, which takes such pride in its cultural richness and racial diversity.”
— Bonnie Chau, bookseller at McNally Jackson