Books have Changed the World

July 29, 2016
by Rick Cole

Books have Changed the World

Books have changed the world.  Can they still?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin galvanized anti-slavery sentiment in the North.  The Jungle led to sweeping reforms to protect the nation’s food safety. Silent Spring helped launch the environmental movement.

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon is an award-winning novel about a 16 year old black youth shot by a white man claiming self-defense.  While having thousands of Santa Monicans reading a novel that speaks so powerfully to contemporary urban issues may not change the world, it certainly would affect our 8.3 square miles of it. 

The book is required summer reading for all Santa Monica High School students.  They are also expected to choose at least one other book from a list of recommended works.  Parents are encouraged to read the same texts and discuss them with their kids.  The school’s English Department says, “Reading the two or three summer books will make your child a better reader, a better writer, and a better thinker; enlarge his or her understanding of people and the world; and help him or her start strongly in English in the fall. And, of course, there are the adventures, discoveries, shocks, laughs, tears, terrors, victories! Reading is sweet and intense.”

Those conversations in homes and classrooms dovetail with plans by Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks to engage our community this fall in active dialogue about the same set of issues.  Seabrooks will touch on those plans at a Sunday morning gathering coming up at the Bahai Center on July 31.  Addressing the theme of “Police-Community Partnerships,” she is enlisting a broad range of community members as partners in developing dialogues about the same issues of race, equity and justice explored in How It Went Down.  

Sometimes news headlines can be both demoralizing and paralyzing.  The steady stream of violent events and images can make us feel that we are powerless to stop unfolding catastrophe.  But we are not.  Opening a book can open our minds.  Stories have always been able to touch hearts.  That hasn’t changed.

The ancient Greeks invented tragedy.  They dramatized life’s pain on the stage to bring understanding and healing.  The Greeks had a word for the moment in a play when the audience experiences the release of the wrenching tensions and emotions evoked onstage.  They called it catharsis. Today, we live in a time when public discourse is dominated by shouting.  Perhaps the shared experience of reading a powerful story can provide catharsis in our community -- and conversations about the book can offer a constructive forum for mutual understanding. 

(Through a partnership with the Santa Monica Kiwanis Club, the Santa Monica Library is providing free How It Went Down paperbacks for all Santa Monica students at all five of our local libraries.  There are also copies to check out.  If you’d like your own copy, they are also on sale at the Barnes and Noble at Wilshire and the Third Street Promenade.)  

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