The people of Chelmsford have spoken and the words are “Empire Falls.” Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was the top vote-getter in our first annual “One Book” election. Close to 1300 Chelmsford residents cast their votes in the November 7th election. “Empire Falls” was the winner with 561 votes, The “Kite Runner” was a close second with 483 votes and “House of Sand and Fog” had 254 votes. The three nominees were selected by a steering committee that reviewed hundreds of nominations submitted by Chelmsford residents from August to October.
The “One Book” program originated in 1998, in Seattle, at the Washington Center for the Book. Renowned librarian Nancy Pearl (she has her own action figure and a show on NPR) was instrumental in getting the program off the ground and it quickly spread across the nation, most notably to Chicago and New York. It was created to bring communities together though the reading and discussion of a common book. It embraced the notion of civic unity through the reading of literature.
Chelmsford has the opportunity to participate in this program because the MA Board of Library Commissioners has designed a grant program promoting community reading projects. The Massachusetts version of the “One Book” program is titled “On the Same Page” [pdf] and is part of a federal LSTA grant program that is administered by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. The Chelmsford Public Library was one of seven libraries in the state chosen to receive the community reading grant. The grant was awarded in October to be used over the coming year.
In a year when municipal funds are stretched tight, it is particularly gratifying to be given this opportunity. It would have been very difficult to initiate a project of this scope with only municipal funds available. But it seemed a perfect time to apply for the grant as it was an opportunity to continue nourishing the good will and community building that had been going on over the past year in celebration of the town’s 350th anniversary.
This $7500 grant supports programs that increase community connectivity, build social trust and affirm the value of libraries as centers of civic life. The grant will be used to purchase multiple copies of “Empire Falls” in various formats, to conduct programs related to the novel and perhaps to entice Richard Russo to come and visit Chelmsford. The Friends of the Chelmsford Public Library will also be helping with book purchases and programming.
The book chosen by Chelmsford residents is a warmhearted and humorous novel with a cast of colorful characters. Richard Russo brings the rhythms of a small New England town to life, balancing his irreverent humor with empathy for his characters and their foibles. Empire Falls, a town long abandoned by the logging and textile industries is filled with townspeople that provide ample evidence of both the restrictions and forced intimacy of rural New England life.
While Chelmsford has grown much in the last twenty years, it is still at its heart a small town and Russo’s eye and ear for small-town life will ring true for readers. Since Russo has been living in Maine for the last 17 years or so, he has become somewhat removed from the hubbub of city life and taken on more of an air of a country gentleman. In an interview for Powell’s Bookstore, he was described as “Russo exudes a distinctly non-New York City, apart-from-the publishing world attitude, as if he might be your neighbor talking over the fence on a lazy weekend afternoon.”
Chelmsford residents will have a chance to get to know this neighbor through his writings and through programs we will offer that coordinate with Russo’s book. Copies of the books will be available starting in December; our programs will begin after the New Year – some in February which is Library Lovers Month, some in March and the bulk of the book discussions in April during National Library Week. We will be finalizing plans and a calendar and book marks with all the details will be published in the next few weeks. Watch the website for updates! But for now, make reading “Empire Falls” one of your New Year’s resolutions and get ready to discuss!