When the One Book/One New Paltz Committee starts meeting each February to try to weed down a hundred-or-so recommended titles into a more manageable shortlist of prospects for the next communitywide reading festival, it’s way too early for its members to predict what the zeitgeist is likely to resemble the following November. So decisions are made based on the usual criteria, says committee member Shelley Sherman: length (under 250 pages); accessibility and universality of appeal, in terms of topic; diversity, both in terms of cultural context and likely audience reactions; how well a book lends itself to discussion and related programming. And, as in the case of this year’s choice, sometimes it’s just a particular author’s “turn,” after being advocated by some committee member year after year without making the cut.
But sometimes the stars align unusually well; sometimes a grim sort of serendipity strikes. Nobody had a clue, when the committee was settling on Philip Roth’s Nemesis last winter, that an epidemic of a scary, often-fatal disease would be gripping the nation’s imagination when One Book/One New Paltz time rolled around again just before Thanksgiving. “Now we have Ebola — who knew?” says Sherman. “People are being scapegoated, and that’s what happens in Nemesis.”
Roth’s 2010 novel — which the 81-year-old, multi-award-winning author has said will be his last — is set in Newark, New Jersey and the Poconos during a polio epidemic in 1944, a full decade before Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine began to undergo broad testing. Kids of the Baby Boom generation grew up hearing stories about those paranoid times, when popular community gathering places like public swimming pools and playgrounds were padlocked to discourage transmission of the crippling disease. The book’s protagonist, 23-year-old Bucky Cantor, is a dedicated teacher/athlete/playground director who has to decide whether to stay in the city with his young charges or to escape to a remote summer camp where the disease has not yet reared its ugly head. Described in One Book/One New Paltz promotional materials as “a story about responsibility, fear, guilt, spirituality, tragedy and happiness,” Nemesis seems a sure bet to provoke lively discussion — especially now, with Ebola quarantines much in the news.
Now in its tenth year, One Book/One New Paltz pursues its goals to “get everybody reading” and foster a sense of community by organizing a week’s worth of book discussions and related events, nearly all with free admission, at venues all over town. “Each has a different flavor depending on the expert who’s leading the discussion,” says Sherman.
The kickoff discussion, led by Rabbi Bill Strongin, will take place at a bagel brunch and meatless potluck at the Jewish Community Center at 30 North Chestnut Street, beginning at 11 a.m. on Sunday, November 16. Reverend Betty J. Sohm will take over the lead as the conversation continues that same evening at 7 p.m. at the New Paltz United Methodist Church at 1 Grove Street.
On Monday, November 17 at 3 p.m., Family Practice of New Paltz’s Dr. Davis Sprague will decode polio from a medical perspective at the Elting Memorial Library at 93 Main Street. Then at 5 p.m., the scene shifts to the Honors Center in College Hall on the SUNY New Paltz campus, where English professor Cyrus Mulready and his graduate students will host an interactive roundtable discussion. Refreshments will be served.
On Tuesday, November 18 at 3 p.m., historians Linda Bouchey and Al Vinck will visit the Woodland Pond Community Room at 100 Woodland Pond Circle for a presentation on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s struggle with polio. At 7 p.m., the Elting Memorial Library will screen the PBS documentary Philip Roth Unmasked. Refreshments will be served.
The next morning, Wednesday, November 19 at 11 a.m., the book discussion resumes at the Elting Library, led by Andrew Bush, professor of Jewish Studies and Hispanic Studies at Vassar College. Refreshments will be served. At 7 p.m., the action will shift to the Unison Arts Center at 68 Mountain Rest Road, where the Mohonk Mountain Stage Company will perform a selection from the novel, followed by a discussion. This is the only One Book/One New Paltz event this year to require a paid admission, at $7.
On Thursday, November 20 at 1 p.m., SUNY New Paltz distinguished professor, author and critic Gerald Sorin will lead the book discussion in Room 1010 of the Faculty Tower on campus. At 5 p.m. in the Honors Center at College Hall, a cross-disciplinary academic panel — moderated by Gerald Benjamin and including Alan Dunefsky, Peter Kaufman, Rosemary Millham and Michael Thomason — will focus on the role of athletics in Nemesis.
Writer and retired educator Richard Barry will lead a book discussion at Woodland Pond on Friday, November 21 at 4 p.m. At 7 p.m. Hudson River Playback Theatre’s improvisational actors and musician will embody audience members’ real-life experiences of Nemesis-related themes at Parker Theatre on the SUNY-New Paltz campus.
The emotions and fears generated by an epidemic will be the topic of discussion led by SUNY New Paltz English professor Tom Olsen at the Inquiring Minds Bookstore at 6 Church Street beginning at 7 p.m. on Saturday, November 22. And the wrap-up discussion will commence at 1 p.m. on Sunday, November 23 at the Elting Library, led by members of the One Book/One New Paltz Committee. Refreshments will be served.
“There’s a concern for timely matters,” says Shelley Sherman of the collaborative, consensus-based process by which each year’s One Book/One New Paltz community reading is selected. Pick up your copy of Nemesis at the library, Barner Books or Inquiring Minds, along with your free bookmark. Then come join in on what promises to be a very timely discussion indeed! More information is available on the One Book/One New Paltz Facebook page.