One Book, One Philadelphia 2011: “War Dances”

This year's selection is a staggering work of beauty and melancholy — with a dash of humor

Philly is ranked as the 31st most-literate city in the United States by Central Connecticut State University. Well, actually, we’re not even rated that highly. We’re actually 31.5 — which we share with Charlotte, NC. (Washington, DC is No. 1 — in case you were wondering.) And of the six subcategories, guess which two had Philly in the top 15? Internet (9) and Periodicals (13.5). Apparently we love our online newspapers and our pretty magazines.

But tell that to the Free Library. With year round events, a world-class author speaking-series, and, especially, the One Book, One Philadelphia program — which kicks off today — the Free Library continues to improve Philadelphia by promoting literacy.

For nine consecutive years, in partnership with the Mayor’s office, the Free Library has held One Book, One Philadelphia. At first glance, the program may seem like some sort of citywide book club. But look at the calendar of events — which include book discussions, film screenings, workshops, theatrical events, and other activities — and you’ll see how the emphasis is to bring the book to life. To make it leave the page and be relevant and, god forbid, educational.

What is great about this program is that the Library doesn’t play it safe. While it would be easy to simply choose some old classic by Bronte or Austin, the selections are much more bold and complex. Think: Dave Eggers’ What is the What or last year’s pick, Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis. Each is far from safe — challenging traditional notions of novels or biographies. And this year’s choice, War Dances, by Sherman Alexie is another example.

In War Dances, which won the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, readers will discover a tremendous work including poems, short stories, interviews, and … well, some sections that are hard to categorize. But underlying all stories are several common themes: mortality, acceptance, family, basketball, and religion. Many of the narrators struggle with being a Native American, specifically Spokane (perhaps an extension of the author himself). This is not to say that these narrators begrudge their heritage; rather, they simply struggle with their identity within the greater American society.

Scattered throughout the book are moments of staggering beauty and sadness. “We buried my father in the tiny Catholic cemetery on our reservation. Since I am named after him, I had to stare at a tombstone with my name on it.” Yet even in these stark moments, readers will still find humor and hope.

For young adults, One Book, One Philadelphia has selected a companion novel, Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (recipient of the National Book Award). I highly recommend everyone pick up both books. You’ll discover a gifted poet, writer, and storyteller.

For information on book discussions, music events, and other activities, click here .