This is the week that Chicago has set aside to discuss "To Kill a Mockingbird," the book designated last summer as the first work to be read by the entire population of the city (and suburbs) as a shared intellectual exercise.
The Harper Lee classic was selected because it is a novel of hope, tolerance, strength, acceptance and fortitude in the face of evil.
And, now, it's clear, that Lee's novel is also the perfect book for post-Sept. 11 America.
When, four months ago, a small committee of Chicago librarians selected "Mockingbird" to kick off the city's One Book, One Chicago initiative, they saw it as a way of getting local residents of all ages, races and backgrounds to talk together about the divisiveness, pain and unfairness of prejudice in U.S. society.
Yet, as the initiative culminates this week with a variety of activities, the book is more pertinent than it ever was, as Americans and their leaders wrestle with their emotions in the wake of the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center towers, damaged the Pentagon and killed more than 5,000 people.
Take the issue of profiling.
African-Americans have long aruged that they are singled out by police for special (and often harsh) treatment simply because of their color. In Lee's novel, Tom Robinson, a young black man accused of rape, "was guilty because he was black," says Cleo Baker, who will be leading two book group discussions of the novel this week.
But that sort of profiling isn't limited to African-Americans.
"There's a lot of profiling now against Arab-Americans after the attacks in New York and Washington," says Baker, business manager at the Edgewater Presbyterian Church and a professional book group leader for the Chicago Public Library system.
Indeed, some angry Americans have lashed out against people from the Middle East -- or who appear to be from the Middle East -- simply on the basis of their clothing or appearance, thus falling into the same racist trap as the white society portrayed in Lee's book.
"We've had two women in the neighborhood with veils over their faces who were hassled about what happened, one who was Bosnian and one who was Arab. The interesting thing is that one was hassled by black people, and one by white people," says Baker.
Baker, who is African-American himself, is one of dozens of book group leaders who will be moderating conversations this week throughout the city and some suburbs as part of One Book, One Chicago.
Leaders of the the project, aimed at giving a boost to reading and helping knit the city's multiethnic, multiracial fabric together, have scheduled such events for this week as a formal lecture by "Mockingbird" expert Claudia Durst Johnson, a mock trial re-enacting a scene from Lee's novel, dramatic readings of the work and screenings of the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck.
Centerpiece of city's book fest
It's the first time the city has attempted a project like this, and it forms the centerpiece of the library system's second annual book festival, City of Big Readers, Chicago Book Week. As part of the festival, a host of writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, Ana Castillo, Jane Hamilton and Sara Paretsky will do readings and book signings around the city throughout the week.
Baker will moderate a discussion of "To Kill a Mockingbird" on Monday at the Mayfair branch library at 4400 W. Lawrence Ave. and on Tuesday at the Starbucks at 1070 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., a half block from Edgewater Presbyterian Church.
Like many Americans, he read the book as a teenager in the 1960s. "Reading the book now at 54, I've got some problems with it," he says.
For one thing, says Baker, Robinson and other African-Americans in the book are too docile. For another, racism prevails.
"Where's Johnny Cochran?" Baker says. "I would love to see a story where a black lawyer comes in and saves the guy. We need black characters who don't die. We need black characters who defend themselves."
In "Mockingbird," blacks, for the most part, are only superficially drawn, Baker says. On the other hand, he says, "There's a great scene at the black church. There's a lot of dignity in that scene. It shows how much black people want to be part of America."
Baker, who runs 14 book groups a month for the library system, says the groups tend to be all white or all black. And, given the segregated housing market in Chicago, he fears that most of this week's "Mockingbird" discussions won't have a mix of people from different backgrounds.
"I'd love to have a group I work with in [predominantly African-American] Woodlawn and a group I work with in [predominantly white] Jefferson Park talk about this together," he says. "Those black ladies and white ladies are the same. I see it. Our problems are all the same."
The week's schedule
Here's a schedule of the "Mockingbird" events this week in the Chicago area:
- A lecture by author Claudia Durst Johnson, an expert about the novel, at 6 p.m. at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St., lower level.
- Book group discussions at various times at several branch libraries, including Near North, Mayfair, Independence and Oriole Park.
- A Great Books Foundation discussion at 6:30 p.m. at the Borders bookstore at 830 N. Michigan Ave.
- A Girl Scouts of America-sponsored discussion, open to all adults affiliated with the Girl Scouts, at noon and 6:30 p.m. at the Girl Scout council office at 222 S. Riverside Plaza, Suite 2120.
- A mock trial at which local lawyers, including ABC-Ch. 7 news anchor Joel Daley as Atticus Finch, re-enact the courtroom scene from the novel, at 5:30 p.m. in the Parsons Memorial Courtroom on the 25th floor of the Dirksen Federal Building, 219 S. Dearborn St. A performance for Chicago public grade and high school students will be held at the same location at 11 a.m.
- Book group discussions at various times at the Woodson Regional Library and the Harold Washington Library Center as well as at several branch libraries, including Galewood-Mont Clare, Kelly, Damen, Roosevelt and Edgewater.
- Group discussions at 7 p.m. at five Starbucks locations: 1070 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., 4557 N. Lincoln Ave., 2759 W. Logan Blvd., 210 W. North Ave. and 2023 W. Roscoe St.
- A Great Books Foundation discussion at 7:30 p.m. at the Borders bookstores at 2817 N. Clark St. and at 1629 Orrington Ave. in Evanston.
- A Singles Book Club discussion at 7:30 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble bookstore, 1441 W. Webster St.
- A Literacy Chicago-sponsored joint reading of the final 87 pages of the novel at 12:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. at 70 E. Lake St., Suite 1500.
- A showing of the movie at 1:45 and 5:45 p.m. in the student lounge at Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson Ave.
- A screening of a 90-minute documentary about the "Mockingbird" film, "Fearful Symmetry," at 6:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., and the movie itself at 8 p.m.
- Book group discussions at various times at the Sulzer Regional Library and several branch libraries, including Albany Park (at two times), West Lawn and Beverly.
- A Great Books Foundation discussion at 6 p.m. at the Borders bookstore at 150 N. State St.
- A group discussion at noon and 7 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble bookstore at 1701 Sherman Ave., Evanston.
- A group discussion at 2 p.m. at Truman College.
- Book group discussions at various times at the Harold Washington Library Center and the following branch libraries: Kelly, Brighton Park (in Spanish), Canaryville and Portage-Cragin (in Polish).
- A dramatic reading of the novel by actors in costume at 6:30 p.m. at the Borders bookstore at 150 N. State St.
- A screening of the documentary about the "Mockingbird" film, "Fearful Symmetry," at 8 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and the movie itself at 8:15 p.m.
- A book group discussion at 1 p.m. at the Tuley Park branch library.
- A Mother and Daughter Book Club discussion, for girls 11-14 and their mothers, at 6 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble bookstore at 1441 W. Webster St.
- Book group discussions at various times at the following branch libraries: North Austin, Near North, South Shore, Mt. Greenwood and Uptown.
- A dramatic reading of the novel by actors in costume at 2 p.m. at the Borders bookstore at 2210 W. 95th St.
- A showing of the movie at various times at the Harold Washington Library Center and the following branch libraries: Back of the Yards, Walker, South Chicago and Portage-Cragin.
- A Great Books Foundation discussion at 2 p.m. at the Borders bookstore at 2210 W. 95th St.
- A dramatic reading of the novel by actors in costume at 3 p.m. at the Borders bookstore at 830 N. Michigan Ave.
A showing of the movie at various times at the Harold Washington Library Center and the Sulzer Regional Library.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times