Julia Sonneborn


One City, One Book


Has anyone participated in a One Book community reading program? Where everyone in a city reads and discusses the same book? I love the idea of this—it’s like a bigger version of a book club, except the members are your fellow citizens. In Los Angeles, where I live, the Southern California Library has suggested Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower as the “one book” to read together as a city this fall.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with her, Butler is an American science fiction writer who was born in Pasadena, California in 1947 (she passed away in 2006, leaving her papers to the Huntington Library). A black woman writing in a very white, very male genre, Butler frequently and brilliantly tackles issues of racism, sexism, and other inequalities in her work. Parable of the Sower, for example, is a dystopian novel that takes place in California in the 2020s and follows Lauren Olamina, a fifteen-year-old black girl, as she navigates a world destroyed by climate change, corporate greed, and violence. Lauren also suffers from something called “Hyperempathy syndrome,” which means that if she sees another person in pain, she feels that pain. She is a “sharer.”


Heavy stuff, I know. I don’t usually read science fiction or fantasy. I haven’t read—or even seen—The Hunger Games. Yet I ended up finding Parable of the Sower a really powerful read, especially at this historical moment. It didn’t feel like science fiction. It felt like a window into our future.


Anyway, I decided to teach Parable for the first time this semester and to try something new with my students. Instead of assigning a traditional final paper or exam, I’m having my classes create educational resources for the novel—study questions, or images, or lesson plans to help other One City, One Book readers as they work their way through the novel. I want them to feel part of a community of readers that reaches beyond a single classroom or a single semester.


Which goes back to the whole idea of a community reading program and why I think these initiatives are so important. The act of reading requires that you put yourself in the shoes of another—that you inhabit the mind of a protagonist or a narrator who might be very, very different from yourself. It’s an act of radical empathy. Most of us stay in our little bubbles, interacting with people who are a lot like ourselves—politically, racially, religiously, whatever. But reading forces you to see the world through eyes different from your own. It’s an imaginative leap of faith. And it’s a way to share an intimate experience—even a fictional one—with others, even in a vast and anonymous city like Los Angeles.  



Julia Lee