Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Sherra Babcock proudly displays three of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle’s 2015 book selections: The Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King for Week Two and Someone by Alice McDermott and Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee, both for Week Three. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was just confirmed this week.
Dozens gather around in a circle, waiting for word from on high. It’s not the Sermon on the Mount — it’s Bryant Day.
Bryant Day, which took place last Saturday, marks the beginning of the new reading year for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. While originally held in the fall, it is now typically held at the end of the season at Chautauqua. Bryant Day serves as a celebration of reading, but also as a day of big announcements.
“I have some surprises,” said Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education.
The surprises are a handful of books that have been chosen for the CLSC in 2015.
Babcock did some ramping up, and then questioned the audience: “Have I prolonged the anticipation enough?”
After some applause, Babcock revealed the first selection for next season’s CLSC: The Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King. King’s novel, which was a finalist for The Chautauqua Prize in 2013, earned the author a Pulitzer Prize last year.
The Devil in the Grove will be the book for Week Two next year, the theme of which is “Boys will be Boys, Then Men.”
“When we talk about trying to get really good creative nonfiction, this is what we’re talking about,” Babcock said. “This is a story: a gripping, terrifying, sad story. But it’s powerful, really powerful. And we chose it for the week on boys because it is about boys — that’s all I can say without giving it away. It is about the way the society in Florida was treating African-American boys just prior to the civil rights movement — and, arguably, are we still treating people that way today?”
The next two books are both for Week Three, which will focus on immigration: Someone by Alice McDermott and Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee. Both McDermott and Lee have graced the Institution and the CLSC before. McDermott previously spoke on Charming Billy in 1998, and Lee visited this year to discuss On Such a Full Sea.
Babcock said on Saturday that the openness of the theme of immigration allows for a wide range of experiences, hence the choice of two novels for one week. Babcock said this means there will likely be 10 books for next year.
“These two books are just wonderful, and they tell two different stories of immigration,” she said.
Babcock added that she is thrilled to have both McDermott and Lee return and speak about their works, which give two different perspectives into the same subject.
“Alice McDermott’s books are quiet,” she said. “They’re character studies, and they’re brilliantly crafted in terms of the families, the neighborhoods. You feel like you’re there.”
McDermott participated in Chautauqua’s “Roger Rosenblatt and Friends” lecture series in 2010.
“She’s very excited to come back, and she’s very excited that we’re covering immigration,” she said. “She said that’s just such a wonderful topic, and she’s very happy that Someone was chosen for that week.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Lee, who will be discussing his 1995 debut novel. Babcock said that, most of the time, authors do not want to “circle back” and revisit their older works.
“But when I told him I was interested in Native Speaker, he said he would be interested to come back and talk about it,” Babcock said. “And I don’t know what his reasoning is, but our reasoning is that it’s in the canon. It’s important because it was his first book, because it talks about the Asian immigrant community, and because it’s one of the first books to do that.”
Since Bryant Day, Babcock was also able to confirm a fourth book for 2015. Anthony Doerr, a member of the 2013 Chautauqua Writers’ Festival faculty, will present his new book All the Light We Cannot See during Week Seven, themed “Redefining Europe.”
All three books fit into the vertical theme for next year’s books, which will be “Truth and Consequences.” Babcock said she hopes that King, McDermott and Lee’s books will be sufficient enough to tide readers over until the rest of the selections are made — a process she is looking forward to.