by Masarah Van Eyck
Since January 2004, more than fifteen groups around Wisconsin have organized book discussion series to share their views on a timelyeven urgenttopic: American politics. As part of "A More Perfect Union: Wisconsin Reads," a program developed by the Wisconsin Humanities Council, folks around the state are learning firsthand that reading about and discussing political issues are essential to participatory democracy.
In this election year, "we the people" need to vote, but we also need to engage in reasoned consideration of political issues. "A More Perfect Union" offers Wisconsinites an opportunity to get involved.
In this democratic spirit, the Wisconsin Humanities Council is offering grants to organizations such as libraries, school groups, campus groups and book clubs who wish to put together their own reading groups and even host authors and other scholars as part of the discussion. Of course you need not receive a grant to read the books. You need nothing but a willingness to step outside of your own political assumptions to examine more critically your own expectations, hopes and responsibilities in a participatory democracy.
Samia Shalabi recently joined a reading group in Madison because she wanted to be better informed for the upcoming election. Her group, made up mostly of young professionals, has met twice so far. Says Shalabi, "They were some of the best discussions I've ever had with a group of people." While the books gave structure and direction to the talks, she says, "We shared so much of our own thoughts and experiences as well." The discussion guide can prove especially helpful when it comes to a subject like politics, not always the easiest social topic.
Other groups, like that hosted by the Lake Geneva Public Library, are open to the entire library community. So far, they have seen ample turnout. "I think interested individuals welcome the opportunity to explore ideas of this caliber with other adults," observed Andrea Peterson, public services coordinator at the library.
The four books in the reading series include a novel, a Greek text, a novella and a political history. What do they have in common? "They each look at the concept of democracy from a different angle," explains Jessica Becker, program director for "A More Perfect Union." "In many ways they each relay radical messages about our political system, challenging us to move beyond our assumptions about our political pastand present."
First in the series is Tim O'Brien's popular novel In the Lake of the Woods, which explores the "win at all costs" mentality of political campaigns by following the trials of an ambitious but faltering local politician. At last year's Wisconsin Book Festival (also a program of the Wisconsin Humanities Council), O'Brien kicked off "Wisconsin Reads" by using his novel as a catalyst for political discussion.
This year, the Wisconsin Book Festival, which will take place just before the 2004 presidential elections, will feature historian Joseph Ellis, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning history Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation is presently on bedside tables of "A More Perfect Union" participants all around the state. Founding Brothers is particularly suited for this year because it asks what kinds of people make good politicians. While recognizing the remarkable nature of our first political figures, Ellis also depicts them as complex and even flawed human beings, not unlike politicians today.
The other two books in the series, Ted Hughes's translation of Aeschylus's The Oresteia and James Clavell's The Children's Story, examine respectively the roots of today's system of justice and the importance of looking beyond patriotic rhetoric.
It's not too late to get involved in "A More Perfect Union: Wisconsin Reads." Contact your library or just assemble some of your most spirited friends. You're sure to gain a better understanding of the successes and challenges of our democracy. Likely you'll also learn a thing or two about each other.