Elizabeth Bennett or Lisbeth Salander? We may not agree, but reading unites us—no matter where we are.



“How was work today?” “Same old thing.”

“What did you do in school today?” “Nothing.”

These frustrating attempts at interaction take place between spouses and between children and their parents every day. It can be a struggle to engage, even if you have plenty of time over the dinner table. So, imagine what it’s like when
deployed soldiers and their families have just a short time to speak to each other.

Alison Baverstock, who is married to a British soldier stationed in Iraq, realized that her family was struggling to relate to one another during phone calls because of the difference in their daily experiences. She told the Guardian, “When your husband rings up from Afghanistan or Iraq, you have a very limited time to talk, but sometimes you just don’t know what to talk about. Your existence can seem quite humdrum in comparison to theirs – and you can’t ask them what they are doing [because military details are secret].”

She found an answer in books. “Being able to talk about a book we’re both reading is great because it gives us some common ground.” Consequently, this March she’s launching The Reading Force, a project designed to bridge the divide between military personnel serving overseas and their families at home by encouraging them all to read the same books. Reading Force will encourage groups of family and friends of soldiers to commit to reading the same book, and recording their thoughts about it – whether by letter, email or in a drawing – in a scrapbook. Those away on tour will also get involved, helping families feel connected and to bond again properly when the tour of duty is over.

Reading is at the core of another project that brings military family members closer, United Through Reading, which has been around since 1989. Through this program, soldiers bond with their families by reading books aloud, recording their reading on DVDs and sending the DVDs home.  So, it’s like a virtual bedtime story. The organization has similar programs for grandparents who live life far away from their grandchildren and for parents who are incarcerated or in treatment.

Reading the same books provides common ground and creates community through shared experiences and ideas. Colleges and universities see the value in this concept and often assign all of the incoming freshman the same book to read before they arrive on campus, thus putting everyone on “the same page,” at least a little. The “one book, one city” programs embraced in Seattle, Chicago and many other communities across the country have the same goal. Check out Chicago Library Foundation’s One Book, One Chicago reading list, even if you don’t live in Chicago.

No matter how noble the mission, not everyone sees the value in the idea of entire communities reading the same thing. Harold Bloom, the country’s most prominent literary critic told The New York Times in 2002, “It is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once.’’

Moreover, choosing a book to read together can create as much dissention as harmony. Entire committees meet to choose the right book for the programs in Seattle and Chicago and a book club can end the evening with everyone in a huff after wrangling over the book choices.  I love discussing books with my family, but they’re all male, even the dog, and they each would rather have a root canal than discuss Jane Austen with me. We have found common ground in books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the rest of Larsson’s trilogy (over which you can start up a conversation with just about anyone in the world).

Okay, I can see why Larsson’s Lisbeth might be a more attractive character to guys than Austen’s Elizabeth. So, we compromise and end up with a mutual reading experience that brings us together for a while–far more satisfying than McNuggets.

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