“One Book New Jersey” Catches Fire



“What if everyone in New Jersey read the same book at the same time?” This is the question posed on the website of the One Book New Jersey program. We will soon know the answer. Libraries across the state have selected Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for all of us to read. You may recall from high school that Fahrenheit 451 is about a future in which firemen do not put out fires; they start them in order to burn books and thereby prevent people from thinking. What you may not recall from high school is something called the Law of Unintended Consequences. It provides some clues as to what might happen when everyone reads the same book at the same time.

Let us start with the fact that our First Lady, Dina Matos McGreevey, is the official spokesperson for One Book New Jersey. Suppose she leaves a copy of Fahrenheit 451 on the night table and Governor McGreeveygets hold of it? This is the same Governor who, one day after a new open-records law went into effect, signed a sweeping executive order exempting more than 400 categories of records from the law, including some records from the governor’s office. Governor McGreevey may read Fahrenheit 451 and think it is a how-to manual. One Book New Jersey will likely help him in other ways. If everyone is busy reading a book, they will not be reading a newspaper or watching the news.

The goal of One Book New Jersey appears worthwhile. Bring people together through literature by encouraging residents across the state to read the same book and participate in discussions and other events centered on that book. But what happens to those of us who commute to New York City? Manhattanites are not reading Fahrenheit 451. They are reading Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker. (In true New York City fashion, a dissenting group called the Women’s Agenda is instead reading James McBride’s The Color of Water.) You know what will happen when the nation’s First Lady, Laura Bush, finds out that the states are literally not on the same page. Get ready for One Book America. Sharpen your pencils for the standardized test which will surely follow each book discussion. Let no couch potato be left behind. (Tip: if you join a Fahrenheit 451 book discussion, do not try to get away with watching the movie version. Unlike the book, director Truffaut does not kill off Clarissa early in the movie—much to the delight of Julie Christie fans everywhere.)

But One Book America will not be the end of it. Imagine Europe’s withering criticism when it finds out that we have unilaterally selected a book for everyone in America to read. France will certainly have an issue with Fahrenheit 451, unless it is renamed Centigrade 233. The United Nations will probably pass a resolution ordering us to instead read Iwao Korbori and Michael H. Glantz’s Central Eurasian Water Crisis (United Nations University Press). Fortunately, the resolution will come with no enforcement provisions.

History provides some insight into the One Book program. During the Cultural Revolution in China, everyone (and I do mean everyone) was reading the same book at the same time. It was the Little Red Book—Quotations from Chairman Mao. For 780 weeks it held all 15 positions on the bestseller list in the Beijing Times Book Review section. I suspect it was the One Book China program that came up with the slogan “Better Read than Dead.” So much for culture.

Here is the ultimate irony and unintended consequence of One Book New Jersey. Fahrenheit 451 is a book which celebrates the diversity of books and the diversity of ideas. Yet here is a government program that picks one book for all New Jerseyans to read. I prefer a Many Books New Jersey program. We all go to the library and each choose the books that interest us. We share the ones we like with others who we think might find them of interest. That is a program which has been working well for over two hundred years.