CLSC finds modern influence in expanding community

Brian Smith | Staff Photographer
Brian Castner, author of the Week Eight Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection The Long Walk, talks about being a veteran in today’s America during the CLSC author presentation on Aug. 15 in the Hall of Philosophy.

There is a slim stack of books in Sherra Babcock’s office. It may seem inconsequential in a room full of several shelves brimming with volumes, but that small pile is the beginning of next year’s Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle reading list.

Babcock, Chautauqua Institution vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, announced at Bryant Day on Aug. 17 the first three CLSC selections for 2014. She is already at work reading books recommended by current members and graduates of the CLSC to shape Chautauquans’ literary experiences throughout the next year.

She is working within a changing literary world. Brian Castner, author of Week Eight’s CLSC selection The Long Walk, spoke in the Hall of Philosophy on Aug. 15, but that is not the extent of his interaction with the Chautauqua community. Before his visit, he wrote a blog about Chautauqua — his childhood memories of the place and his thoughts on his upcoming CLSC presentation. Later this year, Castner may participate in an online CLSC Book Chat.

“We’re trying to figure out ways of being up-to-the-minute and contemporary in our approach towards books and towards reading and towards outreach,” Babcock said.

The CLSC Book Chats, entering their second year, are a way to celebrate and reflect on the previous reading season and to reconnect with fellow Chautauquans in the off-season. The software the chats use, called CoverItLive, works somewhat like a chat room; people from all over the world can discuss the CLSC books together. Babcock said that last year, there was even a person from Singapore involved in a session.

The chats are also a way to extend the CLSC community, Babcock said. During a discussion of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding in April 2013, there were as many people who wanted to talk about the book as there were who wanted to talk about baseball and Chautauqua’s softball teams, she said.

With the advent of Amazon and e-readers, Chautauqua’s role as a physical resource for buying books is dwindling, said Jeff Miller, CLSC activities coordinator. However, the CLSC does manage to influence trends in sales, even in the digital market.

Although search algorithms change, if one were to search on Amazon for the 2013 Week Nine selection, Doron Weber’s Immortal Bird: A Family Memoir, it shows that “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought”: Stephanie Powell Watts’ We Are Taking Only What We Need, Kati Marton’s Paris: A Love Story, Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, Michael J. Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy and Brian Castner’s The Long Walk.

Those books also happen to be the 2013 CLSC selections for Week Four, Seven, Three, Four again and Eight, respectively.

Uniting readers with the same set of books, whether online or in Chautauqua, is a way to establish a kind of common language, Babcock said.

The CLSC is also bringing together readers who never have — and may never — step foot in Chautauqua. The CLSC in Zimbabwe graduated 16 members this season. Although they were not present at the ceremony on the grounds, their names were read aloud, and they had their own celebration in Zimbabwe.

Babcock recalled the words of Charles Ray, former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, who spoke at the CLSC graduation earlier this month. Ray said that the Zimbabweans were struck by the CLSC book Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides, but it wasn’t because the book was about Martin Luther King, and it wasn’t because it was a gripping adventure tale.

“It was that the FBI hated Martin Luther King,” Babcock said. “But when he was killed, the institution [of justice] worked. And institutions in Zimbabwe don’t work. And so the people were fascinated with the idea that the institution of justice worked regardless of what the situation was.”

From there, Babcock said, the conversation turns to a discussion of what can be done about the Zimbabwean institutions that are not working.

Miller said that the CLSC historic list of more than 740 titles can be chosen from by anyone, anywhere — Chautauquans, Zimbabweans and everyone in between.

“This is a great list of books,” Babcock said. “ With these groups, we can choose 12 books that we’d all like to read together, and we can talk to each other across political lines.”