Reading is typically a solitary activity, but it doesn't have to be. Just ask the organizers of the UW's Go Big Read program. They know books are social media in its purest form, tools for bringing people together and helping them connect, converse and learn from each other.
Go Big Read aims to unite students, faculty and community members by having them delve into the same book at the same time, then gather to talk about what they've read. It's like a giant book club where you get to meet the author and explore the work's themes through hands-on activities.
The program highlights just one book per year, so it has to be an especially powerful piece of writing. This week the chancellor's office announced that Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being is the 2013-14 selection.
The novel tells the story of Nao, a Japanese girl whose diary washes up on the shores of British Columbia after the 2011 tsunami. A writer named Ruth finds it and becomes determined to learn more about Nao and her fate. Ruth's process of discovery - and her similarities to the real-life Ozeki - invites discussion about the gray area that lies between fiction and reality. Ozeki also explores topics such as anime, Eastern religion, cyber-bullying and suicide.
Ozeki isn't just an author. Her work as a documentary filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priest informs her writing. The Go Big Read selection committee was impressed by the way A Tale for the Time Being "fuses contemporary and historical, global and personal, creating a story that our reviewers found deeply engaging."
Plus, the book reflects "global connections," the theme the UW has chosen for its 2013-14 academic year. But ultimately, Tale is a complex yet accessible novel that's bound to generate discussion. The New York Times called it "an intricate parable" starring an adolescent who's "breezy, petulant, funny, sad and teenage-girl wise."
"From the beginning, we wanted a mix of genres," says selection committee co-chair Sarah McDaniel, who's also the information literacy coordinator at the UW's Memorial Library.
McDaniel says the book may get more attention from literature classes but expects interest from groups studying Zen Buddhism, meditation, Japanese pop culture and many other disciplines.
Committee member Liz Amundson, a public librarian who leads book discussion groups at the city's Central Library, is excited about the choice. She predicts it will be even more popular with book clubs than Radioactive.
"Some book groups only read novels, and my constituency is heavily into fiction," she says.
Choosing through collaboration
No matter the genre, choosing a Go Big Read book is no cakewalk. The process starts with a very long list the public generates through the Go Big Read website, gobigread.wisc.edu. The list gets narrowed down by a selection committee that includes undergraduate and graduate students, plus faculty and staff from groups such as the chancellor's office, the UW library system, the communication arts department, University Housing and the Wisconsin Alumni Association. The committee then nixes titles that don't reflect the year's theme. Everyone on the selection committee reads three to five titles from the short list, and each book is read by approximately five people.
Leah Ujda, a digital librarian at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research who's also a member of the selection committee, says the evaluation process is "incredibly thoughtful."
"We have interesting, meaningful discussions about the books, and everyone brings a different perspective on why each book may or may not be a good match for the program," she says. "I always seem to end the process with a long list of additions to my own personal 'to read' list."
In the end, the chancellor picks the Go Big Read book from a very short list of titles. This task became a labor of love during Biddy Martin's tenure.
"Biddy loved Go Big Read, and she was very involved in the book selection," Ujda says.
Martin brought the idea to the UW from Cornell, where there was a similar program that focused on classics. Martin thought the program at the UW should instead focus on contemporary works, in part because their authors could be invited to campus, McDaniel says.
Interim chancellor David Ward chose A Tale for the Time Being, in part because both Ozeki and her publisher, Penguin, expressed so much enthusiasm about Go Big Read.
"A key factor in the success of Go Big Read is an author who is interested in our community and eager to engage with readers during her visit to campus," McDaniel says.
The committee also looks for books that will spur conversation. Ujda describes the first Go Big Read book, In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, as "polarizing" but says the committee saw this as an opportunity for lively debate.
Illustration and innovation
Colleges have been creating shared reading experiences for a while, but Go Big Read is more inclusive than programs at many other schools, which tend to limit the experience to freshmen.
At the UW, all new students receive a copy of the selected book during convocation in September. Instructors who use the book in their classes can also get free copies for their students, and public events focusing on the book's themes occur throughout the year. And the book's author always visits Madison.
The UW declared 2012-13 "the year of innovation," and the Go Big Read book illustrated the theme well. Radioactive is the story of Marie Curie and her discovery of radium and radioactivity, a scientific innovation. Its "graphic nonfiction" format is also innovative, combining cyanotype illustrations with a hand-rendered typeface. In other words, it's a book that builds a bridge between the sciences and the fine arts.
Chemistry professor Judith Burstyn used Radioactive in her Chemistry 311 class, "Chemistry Across the Periodic Table." In this upper-level lab, students synthesize inorganic compounds.
"We made Prussian Blue, which is the pigment used in cyanotype printing," she says. "I was able to talk about the chemical process behind the book's cyanotype printing."
Burstyn also expanded her curriculum to include discussions of radioactive elements such as uranium and radium.
"We talked a lot about how Curie isolated radium out of seven tons of pitchblende, about why she needed to do that to prove that it existed," Burstyn explains. "Radium is the last radioactive element that anyone has been able to synthesize in any significant quantity. Nowadays, when researchers discover a new radioactive element, they can isolate only a few atoms of it."
Redniss' cyanotype illustrations also generated interest beyond the campus community. Cyanotype printing is a photographic process that uses chemicals and ultraviolet light to create brilliant, cyan-blue images. The Madison Public Library ran a series of workshops on the technique, led by Madison artist Aliza Rand of Violet Art Studios. Since then, the library's Bubbler program has revisited the topic in free public classes.
Amundson also envisions Bubbler activities related to A Tale for the Time Being.
"Ozeki talks a lot about the layered meanings of the various kanji characters Nao uses in her diary," she says, noting that workshops about kanji, a written form of Japanese, would be an ideal way for the public explore the book.
With Radioactive, the community got to learn about Marie Curie, radiation and radioactivity. The book was a catalyst for Micaela Sullivan-Fowler, a librarian at the UW's Ebling Library who created an exhibit focusing on the medical and social implications of Curie's work. It included information about "radium girls," young female factory workers who developed cancer after painting radium watch dials.
In addition to inspiring science experiments and art classes, the Go Big Read selection encourages the community to dig into a text in ways they might not otherwise.
The book tends to be popular with reading groups at the Madison Public Library, according to Amundson. She says Radioactive seemed to attract a slightly different set of readers than past books.
"At least 70 private groups borrowed Radioactive kits," she says, referring to sets of books and discussion materials she puts together for book groups. This number doesn't include the Central Library groups that discussed the book, either.
The book's unconventional format created some challenges, though.
"Some readers found the cyanotype printing difficult to read in less-than-perfect lighting, and with bifocals," Amundson says.
Interestingly, the Go Big Read committee raised this issue early on in the selection process. The university even worked with the book's publisher, HarperCollins, to create a more accessible version of the book for visually impaired readers.
McDaniel knew a conventional audiobook with one narrator might not do the trick. That's why the UW's libraries and McBurney Disability Resource Center collaborated with HarperCollins to create MP3 and PDF versions of Radioactive that present narrative text alongside image descriptions. These features helped tailor the book to the needs of community members with disabilities.
A conversation about culture
McDaniel says Redniss' campus visit was very successful. The author, artist and New School instructor met with student groups, visited classes and spoke to the public in October. During a talk at Union South, she discussed how she transitioned from creating black-and-white artwork for The New York Times to telling longer stories through colorful illustrations.
The upcoming school year's "global connections" theme portends even more collaboration between the university and the community. Tentative plans for Ozeki's visit include a public lecture and meetings with classes in the journalism, English and religious studies departments.
Ed Van Gemert, interim director of the UW's General Library System, says a global story like A Tale for the Time Being "fits the university's mission." But this book offers so much more than a chance to chat about other parts of the world. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, thorny cross-cultural dialogue is more important than ever. And reading Tale seems like an excellent first step toward healing the wounds.