The First Season, Part 1

A post by Emma: In late summer 2001, the Chicago Public Library and the Mayor’s office announced that Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird would be the inaugural choice of a new program called “One Book, One Chicago.”

We returned to the cultural and political climate when OBOC launched by diving into the archive of newspapers between August and October of 2001. There might have been many possible reactions to the choice of Harper Lee’s famous but controversial novel, but it was all together well-received. On August 9, 2001, Patrick Reardon and Marja Mills wrote an article for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette entitled “Chicago Launches Citywide Book Club: `To Kill A Mockingbird’ First On Library’s List.” They tell how To Kill A Mockingbird is one of Mayor Daley’s personal favorite books, opening their article with a humorously: “This city, bolstered by a mayor who’s an avid reader but known more for grammatical bloopers than bon mots, hopes to turn its citizenry into one giant book group this fall.” Reardon and Mills also mention the book’s historical importance in discussing race in the United States, explain why the book was chosen for Chicago, and how it might appeal to contemporary audiences.

Only a few weeks later, on August 31, 2001, the Chicago Tribune’s Patrick Reardon published another article on the increased sales of To Kill A Mockingbird. In the article titled, “Sales of `To Kill a Mockingbird’ moving up Net best-seller lists” (see Image 1 below), Reardon writes, “Amazon.com reported that the mass market paperback edition of “Mockingbird” jumped Wednesday to 67th on its best-seller list from a ranking the day before of 324th, out of more than 2 million titles carried by the company.” Other major bookstores, like Barnes and Noble, also noted an increase of sales influenced by OBOC’s launch. OBOC’s event gained a great deal of popularity for Lee’s novel and our search in archival news articles showed how Chicagoans were excited to join the new city-wide book club.

On September 7, 2001, the Chicago Tribune ran an article entitled “Is anybody reading `To Kill a Mockingbird’?” (see Images 2-3 below), checking in on Chicago’s engagement after the momentum of OBOC’s announcement in August. The article made the first page of the Tribune’s entertainment section, Tempo. The results were positive. Libraries and bookstores all over Chicago were running out of copies of To Kill A Mockingbird. Versions in English, Spanish, and Polish were being delivered across the city’s library branches to meet the demands. Sources are quoted saying that at the central Harold Washington Library Center copies of the novel had “flown off the shelves.” According to Putnam and Feldstein, in 2001-2, To Kill a Mockingbird “was checked out of branch libraries more than eight thousand times over the course of a few months. Bookstores sold thousands more copies—To Kill a Mockingbird was on the Barnes & Noble top ten list for two months” (51).

OBOC’s mission was to spark discussion and readership across the city. They were successful as booksellers and libraries were witnessing increased engagement.

In Part 2 of this post (stay tuned!) we examine OBOC’s first season – launched officially on September 9, 2001 — in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Figure 1: Chicago Tribune, August 31, 2001
Figure 2: Chicago Tribune, September 7, 2001
Figure 3: Chicago Tribune, September 7, 2001

References:

Putnam, Robert D., and Lewis M. Feldstein, with Dan Cohen: Better Together: Restoring the American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.

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