SJR Column, One Book, One UIS, September 2013
The University of Illinois is welcoming thousands of new and returning students this month and, on each of the three UI campuses, faculty, staff and students are already immersed in the many activities that collectively create the rich intellectual environment that is the University of Illinois, the state’s best and most comprehensive public university.
I’m especially pleased this year that our early fall schedule on the Springfield campus includes something new – a community reading project. Since the late 1990s, the concept of a community read, originated by the Washington Center for the Book, has proliferated across the country and around the world – bringing people together from a wide spectrum of backgrounds through the reading and discussion of a common book.
The One Book, One UIS initiative is the brainchild of Jane Treadwell, UIS Librarian and Dean of Library Instructional Services. When Jane and I first discussed the idea a year ago, she reminded me of the promise in our vision statement – to enrich individual lives and to make a difference in the world. “Books have been banned and burned,” she said, “because they have power; the power of ideas.” The Chancellor was an easy sell and Jane immediately launched the project, forming a planning group and soliciting suggestions from members of Friends of the Brookens Library and others on campus and in the community of Springfield and beyond.
What an engaging book they chose! Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity has been described as “a triumph of a book” and “the best book yet written on contemporary India.” The author, Katherine Boo, won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2000 and is also a MacArthur genius grant recipient. Boo has spent most of her career reporting on disadvantaged communities, first across the U.S. and now, with this book, in India.
Some books we love because they are so enjoyable, because they are such a delight to read. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is not one of those books. The setting is a desperate slum near the Mumbai airport, awash in sewage and petrochemicals, yet surrounded by five luxury hotels. The four main characters, undercitizens Boo calls them, are caught in a precarious struggle for survival and powerless to control the economic and social forces surrounding them.
What makes this book such a great read, though a difficult one in some ways, is that Boo’s account comes from more that three years of investigative reporting; three years spent in Mumbai’s Annawadi slum doing research for the book. I heard Boo being interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air a few months after the book won the National Book Award. She described her work, in part, as following people while they lived their lives, “going where they went and doing what they did.” The book reads like a novel even though the characters are real.
Reading is mostly a solitary endeavor, but I’m glad that reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers is part of something larger at UIS this fall. I’m looking forward to participating in the panel discussions that have been scheduled as part this project. Best of all, Katherine Boo will be a guest on the UIS campus on October 7th and will provide a lecture in Sangamon Auditorium. Please consider this my invitation for you to join us! The Boo lecture is free and open to the public, though you’ll need to reserve a ticket at the UIS Sangamon Auditorium box office by calling 217-206-6160. For more information about the many activities scheduled as part of One Book, One UIS, check the UIS website at www.uis.edu/.