It may not be Oprah’s Book Club, but the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle has quite the following.
Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, said that while the CLSC is popular among Chautauquans, it also has influence outside Institution grounds. Babcock said that other book circles nationwide and worldwide often use the CLSC’s list as their jumping-off point.
The CLSC’s annual selections can almost take on a life of their own. Babcock said that the CLSC books often become interconnected through the distinction of being a CLSC selection. This can easily be seen on Amazon: look up any of the books selected for the CLSC this season, and at least one other book from the season will inevitably be “recommended” as well.
Conquering Amazon is no small feat, but the CLSC seems to have pulled it off.
Babcock said the first element she looks for when creating the CLSC list is a simple but essential one: good writing.
“What I always hope that people get out of the CLSC list is a book list that you can trust,” Babcock said. Curating the list can be quite the task, however. “It’s a little bit like putting a puzzle together,” she continued, and part of that puzzle is fitting the books into the vertical theme of the season.
The vertical theme serves as a kind of grand connector that unites each book under a common — but broad — premise. This season’s theme is “exploration and discovery,” one that Babcock hopes will be apparent in many ways, shapes and forms in the CLSC’s selections for the season. The theme is also one that aligns well with the July 26 inter-arts collaboration, Go West!, Babcock said.
Babcock said the vertical theme can help those participating in the CLSC off the grounds think critically about what they’re reading. Questions such as, “What do these books have in common? Why was this book chosen? How does it relate to the theme?” can help readers both on and off the grounds structure their thinking about the literature they are consuming.
The main goal of the vertical theme is to “intentionally embrace a variety of genres and a variety of work,” Babcock said. “It also keeps every book from being the same.”
“We’re very intentional about having some history, some science, some poetry and some short works, like essays and short stories,” Babcock said. “And then, of course, fiction is really popular.”
The broad spectrum for this season includes a memoir from Roger Rosenblatt about growing up in New York, a new novel from Chang-Rae Lee that focuses on a female fish-diver in a declining vision of America and a book on the importance of the Declaration of Independence by Danielle Allen. Allen’s book, titled Our Declaration, will be arriving hot off the presses at Chautauqua — its release date is June 23.
Babcock said that it’s also helpful if the CLSC books can be connected at least “in some tangential way” to the theme of each week at the Institution. This led Babcock to choose soccer legend Pelé’s Why Soccer Matters as the book for Week Six, which focuses on Brazil as a rising superpower.
“Of course the book tells us a lot about soccer, but if you read it, it actually tells you a lot about Brazil as well,” Babcock said. “He talks about how the game and the culture are intertwined.”
While the books themselves are important, so are the writers. Babcock said having the writers attend Chautauqua can amplify and personalize the experience.
“We want a person who can acquaint us with the writing and their writing process and the content of the book as well,” Babcock said. For the most part, writers seem eager to attend and speak about their work. One notable exception is Fyodor Dostoevsky, author of last year’s selection Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky’s death in 1881 prevented him from visiting in Chautauqua in 2013.
The variety of this season’s selections and visiting authors has Babcock excited for the season, which she said could be shaping up to be one of the best yet. This season’s vertical theme also seems to be one that many at Chautauqua will be able to relate to.
“Every Chautauquan is an explorer and a discoverer,” Babcock said. “I think sometimes when you start discussing books with other people, you need a starting place. You ask, ‘Why these nine books?’ And it is a question to show people how exploration and discovery can be a theme in their lives.”