How do you get a whole community to read a single book? Well, it generally starts, as these things always do, with one person. Dorothea von Moltke, co-owner of Princeton’s newest bookstore, Labyrinth Books, recently attended a big industry book fair where she heard that Chinua Achebe’s, the author of “Things Fall Apart” and winner of the 2007 Man Booker International Prize, was going to speak at the Penn Clubs in New York and Pennsylvania in celebration of the book’s 50th anniversary. Seizing the moment, she approached Achebe’s publisher and publicist, suggesting that he make a stop in Princeton, set dead center between his other two stops, and they were game.
Von Moltke quickly contacted Leslie Burger, director of Princeton Public Library, to initiate a collaboration. They decided to make Achebe’s book the Princeton Reads title for this year. Princeton Reads is a community-wide initiative that joins the library and the university with schools and businesses, encouraging residents of all ages to read a selected book that will raise the community’s consciousness of itself and its role in the world and to participate in discussions and events centered on that book. The library’s first Princeton Reads progrm took place in 2003,when thousands of people in the greater Princeton community read and discussed Chang-rae Lee’s “Native Speaker.” Last year’s book was James McBride’s “The Color of Water.” From now on the Princeton Reads event will occur every other year.
Von Moltke got in touch with Valerie Smith, professor of English and director of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University “so that there would be ‘Surroundsound’ around the visit,” says von Moltke. Joining Smith in a series of Princeton Reads events are Simon Gikandi, professor of English, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy. Gikandi will host a screening of the documentary, “Welcome to Nollywood,” about the Nigerian film industry, on Thursday, March 20. Appiah will hold a discussion with author Achebe on Wednesday, March 26, at Nassau Presbyerian Church.
The opening event for Princeton Reads takes place on Tuesday, February 26. It will feature Paul Muldoon, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor of creative writing at Princeton, reciting the poem from which the book’s title is taken, William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” Muldoon and John Anagbo, English supervisor at Montgomery High School and a Princeton resident will talk about the book and its significance, and the People’s Verse Speaking Choir, directed by Cecilia B. Hodges, will perform selections from the book. The library will also be giving away free copies of the book. See listings at end for all Princeton Reads events.
The role played by von Moltke in this year’s Princeton Reads has a lot to do with the vision that she and her co-owners — her husband, Clifford Simm, and brother-in-law, Peter Simm — have for their bookstores. “I see the bookstore as a place where those groups can meet, where campus and town can meet,” she says. “We’re happy to be a conduit, a catalyst, and a forum. Each circumstance invites a different role.”
They opened their first store in New York 11 years ago and the second in New Haven almost three years ago. They sold the New York store to a former partner in order to open the one in Princeton. The stores have always worked with civic and arts groups to support community events. About her effort on behalf of Achebe, she says, “It was just a question of pulling together the resources already here.”
Kristin Pehnke, reader services coordinator at Princeton Public Library, is coordinating this year’s Princeton Reads program. She believes “Things Fall Apart” has wide appeal. “It has lots of themes we could all grab from,” she says. “It’s the kind of book where you really learn something about yourself and about other cultures as you read it.”
The protagonist, Okonkwo, deals not only with his own internal conflicts but with a society disintegrating around him even as he tries to hold on to his traditions and honor them. “He was one time viewed as a hero in his community, but things are shifting around him and he is losing hold of that,” Pehnke says. And so it is with us, she continues. “With the world changing so quickly, we all need to adapt to a changing society and changing traditions and to develop new traditions, and it’s harder for some people than for others.”
Another theme in the book that resonates for Pehnke is the persistence of war. “A lot of global clashes seem to be rooted in trying to change these old societies, and the Western world sees them as having to conform to the Western ways,” she says.
John Anagbo, who read “Things Fall Apart” in high school and in college in Ghana, is now teaching it to his students at Montgomery High School. The high school he attended was part of the English system, and he had just finished “Hamlet” when he read Achebe’s book for the first time; as a result, his first thought was “Wow, this sounds like the African Hamlet.” Beyond the connection he saw with Shakespeare, Anagbo was drawn to the book’s depiction of African history and what colonialism did to Africa as well as by the way it captures the struggle expressed in Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” whose first stanza gives the book its title:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world./The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all convictions, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
According to Anagbo, the white missionaries undermined the superstitious beliefs of the native Africans, whose culture they viewed as uncivilized and barbarous — “all those adjectives that bring out the negative elements of colonialism,” he says. The missionaries were relentless in their efforts to “civilize” the natives and did not respect the customs, institutions, and traditions of the people.
‘Okonkwo was so steeped in his traditional values that the onslaught of the missionaries to take over his culture was too much for him,” says Anagbo. As a result, Okonkwo committed the biggest possible sacrilege in his community — he killed another person without just cause, and this killing of a missionary caused his fall. He was hoping that his people would back him up, but it was too late, because both his son and his adopted son had joined the missionaries against their own father.
The library is coordinating several efforts to reach out to the Princeton community. Chuck’s Spring Street Cafe, the Bent Spoon, Iano’s Pizza, the Little Chef Pastry Shop, Sotto Ristorante and Lounge, Small World Coffee, the Original Soupman, Olives, and PJ’s Pancake House will leave copies of the book in places where people stop and sit for a few minutes, to encourage them to pick one up and start reading. The library is still at work signing on additional participants.
To inspire interest in the book, the library is holding three additional outreach events and is scheduling numerous discussion groups, which are listed on the library website at www.princetonlibrary.org/reads along with suggested discussion questions. The library’s teen coordinator, Susan Conlon, is working with Princeton High School librarian Arlene Sindig to involve students, and with Corner House to set up a book discussion. Von Moltke is working on outreach to the Trenton and Ewing schools.
The library will also screen two related documentaries. “Suffering and Smiling,” on Thursday, March 6, is the story of two activist Nigerian musicians, Fela Kuti and his son, Femi. Fela, a pioneer of Afrobeat music, has led a crusade for the people of Nigeria against the exploitation of the country’s oil resources by western oil companies. The film, says Pehnke, depicts the state of hopelessness within Nigerian society. “The struggle for this particular musician,” she says, “is to get people to open their eyes and do something about it.” The film’s director, Dan Ollman, will speak about his film at the screening.
The aforementioned “Welcome to Nollywood” will be screened on Thursday, March 20, followed by a discussion moderated by Gikandi. The film is about Nigeria’s film industry, the third largest in the world, right behind Bollywood in India. “Many independent movie producers are producing hundreds of movies and selling them directly to the people of Nigeria,” says Pehnke.
According to an article by Steven Gray in the Washington Post, these English-language movies are gaining popularity among the fast-growing African immigrant population in the United States. The films address the clash between tradition and modernity, giving these immigrants’ children a glimpse of African traditions, such as children lowering their heads in deference to their parents during conversations.
On Friday, March 14, the Liberian-born soprano and classical artist Dawn Padmore will present a journey through Africa and America through art songs and arias. She will be accompanied by Christopher Johnson.
A native New Yorker, Pehnke resolved not to become a librarian after a stint of library work in high school, and she majored in journalism and communications at C.W. Post/Long Island University where she graduated in 1994.
After college she worked at Viking Press as a publicity assistant, arranging author interviews, and she found this very stressful. She then served as a publicist at Mercury Records and then Josell Communication. Pehnke eventually found her way back to libraries, and received a masters of library science from CUNY/Queens College in 2005. Before joining Princeton Public Library part time in 2004 she also worked at the library at Mercer County Community College and at North Brunswick Public Library. She calls herself “a recovering opera singer,” having sung for eight years with a small company, the New York Grand Opera.
One of the African values that the missionaries in “Things Fall Apart” undermine is the importance of communal living. Anagbo observes that in Africa it indeed “takes a community to raise a child.” The Princeton Reads program takes a community and encourages it to read a book and together fully understand its message.
Princeton Reads, Tuesday, February 26, 7:30 p.m. Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Community-wide book discussion of Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” Poet Paul Muldoon reads W.B. Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” from which “Things Fall Apart” takes its title. People’s Verse Speaking Choir is led by Cecilia B. Hodges. Nigerian native John Anagbo, a poet and English supervisor at Montgomery High School, shares his observations about the book. 609-924-8822.
“Suffering and Smiling,” Thursday, March 6, 7 p.m. Documentary screening and post-film discussion with director Dan Ollman.
“Art and Songs of Africa and America,” Friday, March 14, 7 p.m. Dawn Padmore, a Liberian-born soprano and classical artist, accompanied by Christopher Johnson, presents a journey thorugh Africa and America with art songs and arias.
“Welcome to Nollywood,” Thursday, March 20, 7 p.m. Documentary screening and discussion led by Simon Gikandi, professor of English at Princeton University.
Chinua Achebe, Wednesday, March 26, 6 p.m., Nassau Presbyterian Church. Discussion with the Nigerian novelist, author of “Things Fall Apart” and winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy at Princeton University.