In 2003 The Iowa Center for the Books developed the All Iowa Reads Program. Every year a novel is selected, and the idea is that Iowans read it and public libraries host discussions. The Center tries to select readable, accessible books with a midwest connection, and most of the books have been pretty good. (The first two were crap, but perhaps they realized they'd underestimated readers, because the quality rose.)
2011. Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos
2010. Driftless by David Rhodes
2009. The Rope Walk by Carrie Brown
2008. Digging to America by Anne Tyler
2007. Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio by Jeffrey Kluger
2006. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
2005. The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich
2004. Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken
2003. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
Sing Them Home is very enjoyable. Set in Emlyn Springs, Nebraska, it is lyrical and engaging, laced with magical realism, reminiscent of Garcia Marquez and Louise Erdrich (though not, so far, quite in that class). Part One--"The Tornado Storm Project:--begins with a storm. Everyone in town is disturbed by the barometric pressure.
"There are grumpy toddlers, too, throwing tantrums, caterwauling in unison. Family pets all over town are nervous and misbehaving--fluttering, howling, hissing, gnawing, mauling lace curtains, and mangling good leather shoes even though they know better. Premenstrual girls are arguing with their mothers, moping in front of the television, or daydreaming on polyester bedspreads behind violently slammed doors.... Afternoon trysts are not going well. Noses tickle without relief. The carpenters in town curse and measure again, curse again, measure again."
Mayor Llewellyn Jones insists on playing golf in the heart of a storm. Even the town's dead--who witness the townspeople's mistakes from the cemetery, and, between thunderclaps are chanting, "Cornhusker one...Cornhuskers two...Cornhuskers three"--wonder what Jones is thinking. He is struck by lightning and, as he dies, his golfball arcs into the sky and never falls to the ground. And when the Jones children return to their hometown, I assume they must come to terms with their history.
As I considered the many state reading programs today, I wondered how much influence Oprah had on them. She started her book club in 1996 and won a National Book Award in 1999. Certainly she inspired book groups across the country and may well have galvanized the formation of One Book programs this century.
I used to belong to a very good book co-op book group (which I started!), where we took turns picking books and leading discussions. I also attended an Oprah book group at a chain bookstore. The readers were nice women, and the Oprah picks were excellent. They included Kaye Gibbons's Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman, Toni Morrison's Song of Soloman, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory, and Sue Miller's When I Was Gone. Then Oprah cut back--who could blame her?--so the Oprah book club at the bookstore floundered, desultorily selected a few losers like Anna Quindlen's The Blessing and a couple of chick lit titles, and, without the organization of Oprah, faded away.
When Oprah goes off the air, we won't have a TV heroine to remind people to read. The women who attended the Oprah book group at the store were already readers, but I guarantee that some were reading better books because of Oprah. And think of all the non-readers who read them.
And so the book groups fold. Borders has closed and the readers are all online now.