Who needs one Oprah when you can have 8.5 million Oprahs?
New York is attempting a citywide book club, urging its residents to pick up Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah through an inaugural “One Book, One New York” initiative. And unlike your local book club that might be more wine-swilling fest than literary tête-à-tête, there’s a good chance at least someone you know will finish Adichie’s heralded 2013 novel.
Adichie’s book feels like an especially relevant pick during this political climate. The post-9/11 story of a young Nigerian woman who comes to the U.S. for college and whose boyfriend can’t come into the country and goes on to lead a dangerous undocumented life in London touches on issues of race and immigration in a captivating and distinctly modern love story. The book caught the attention of Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o, who purchased the rights shortly after its release and is developing a movie or TV series version.
Americanah beat four other award-winning titles for the “One Book” claim, including The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and The Sellout by Paul Beatty. Each book was promoted by a celebrity in a video series with Buzzfeed; Bebe Neuwirth gets bragging rights for advocating for Americanah.
“All five of the books we selected were intentionally focused on important issues of race and immigration, but Americanah clearly is such a timely story,” says Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment Commissioner Julie Menin, whose office spearheaded the program, which has already sparked interest in cities and countries around the world, with people emailing and tweeting from Israel, Turkey, and elsewhere seeking advice on starting a One Book program.
New York isn’t the first city to attempt a wide-ranging book club, but it might be the most democratic. Usually a city official or committee picks a book and deems it suitable for everyone. One can only imagine the problems and debates that arise. “We wanted to do it differently,” says Menin.
In a savvy move, New Yorkers were able to vote on the winner this time around, preventing a rehash of what happened back in 2002 when civics groups and women's groups in the city formed a committee to choose a title for a one-book program. The result? Deadlock. “That’s an only-in-New-York moment, that there was so much debate that they couldn’t decide on a book,” says Menin.
The program will be supported by programs throughout every borough, with events ranging from a panel in Harlem hosted by author and cultural critic Touré to a conversation with Adichie and Trevor Noah to a talk in Union Square titled “Badass Women: Speaking Your Power.”
Adichie herself certainly falls under that title. Her accolades including winning a MacArthur fellowship, the National Book Critics Circle Fiction award, and in what might be most appealing to certain culturally savvy New Yorkers: having her TED talk sampled in a Beyoncé song. As the New York Times writes in a piece on Adichie’s latest book Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, “The pop and the literary threads are not opposites to her, and their merger is central to the way she presents her public self and her work.” Who better to convince New Yorkers that reading is cool again?
Beyond creating civic dialogue—if you can manage to pry yourself away from the pages—the One Book program is also trying to give a leg up to local bookstores. According to Menin, there are only 65 independent book stores citywide, but there are none in the Bronx after a Barnes and Noble closed. To ensure cost isn’t a barrier to reading the book, the city partnered with Scribd to make the audio version available for free for the next three months. Penguin Random House also donated 1,500 copies of the book to New York City’s public library system, which will host discussions throughout the five boroughs.
And for those people who might not want to join in on the events or strike up a conversation with fellow readers on the subway, the publisher has created an at-home reading guide. “We’ve got something for the introverts as well,” says Menin.
Ah, they really do understand New Yorkers.