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Getting on the Same Page: Humanities Institute and City of Austin help build community through shared reading experience

Austin, which has one of the highest number of book sales per capita in the country, is a city where literary waters run deep. To expand the flow of knowledge to all of Austin, city and university leaders have unveiled a plan to get the city’s readers of literature on the same page by starting a citywide book club encouraging residents to read the same book.

Austin Mayor Gus Garcia holding the first book selection.
Photo: Marsha Miller
Austin Mayor Gus Garcia displays the first selection of the new citywide reading program. Austin residents will be able to check out Bless Me, Ultima from the Austin Public Library and attend discussion groups hosted by University of Texas at Austin professors.
The campaign, titled “What if All of Austin Reads the Same Book?” is modeled after successful programs in Seattle and other major cities, but it is the first of its kind in Texas. Mayor Gus Garcia announced the project on April 15 in conjunction with National Library Week.

“Through this reading campaign, we hope to build active community participation and enable communication among Austin’s diverse citizens by promoting this citywide reading and discussion of a shared book,” Garcia said.

The first selection of the “Mayor’s Book Club,” Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya, is available at all 22 city library locations, with at least 10 copies at each branch. Anaya’s novel, first published in 1972, will be offered at area bookstores as well.

Austin Mayor Gus Garcia holding the first book selection.
Photo: Marsha Miller
Evan Carton is director of the Humanities Institute. Some of the Institute's faculty fellows will lead the free public discussion groups that in the fall will focus on Bless Me, Ultima.
In keeping with its mission to break down the walls of the university — creating a public intellectual sphere that engages academics and non-academics together, The University of Texas at Austin’s Humanities Institute is helping coordinate the campaign and will be offering free public discussion groups with university faculty on the chosen book.

Faculty members will be selected to lead discussion sections at various Austin branch libraries loosely formed around their fields of study. The institute hopes to draw some faculty from its 2002-3 faculty fellows who are participating in seminars around the theme of “Texas in Global Contexts.”

“Our faculty fellows will be exploring ideas of race and community, especially in Texas and the Southwest — providing great overlap with the themes of the selected book, Bless Me, Ultima,” said Cathryn Meyer, program coordinator of the institute. “This is a very exciting and major civic program, and the Humanities Institute is privileged to represent the university in such a public way.”

“As a public university, one of our responsibilities and opportunities is to bring the joy of learning and life of the mind into the public sphere,” said Evan Carton, director of the Humanities Institute. “This represents a wonderful collaboration among the university, the public libraries and the mayor’s office.”

Bless Me, Ultima is a timely story, Carton said. Set in New Mexico at the close of World War II, Anaya’s novel charts a young boy’s passage into experience through his encounters with division and change — in the landscape, in his family, in his language, in the culture — and with cruelty, loss and the loving wisdom (embodied in the ancient curandera, or healer, Ultima) to surmount them.

Bless Me, Ultima asks us to think about how we deal with change and what is worth preserving, about what and why evil is, and about what role spirit plays in our lives and where it is to be found — in nature? Institutional religion? Folk tales and traditions? Love?” Carton said.

“These are some of the questions that summer readers of the novel in English or in Spanish may wish to consider and that a series of free panel discussions and public forums held all over Austin in the fall, and culminating in a town meeting with the author, will explore,” he said.

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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