New Paltz Builds Community Through Reading

"Zeitoun" by author Dave Eggers.

While reading a book can spark a personal journey, it can also work wonders on a community level, just as One Book/One New Paltz (OB/ONP) has continued to do in recent years. Currently in its sixth year running, group events and discussions will be underway from Nov. 12 to 20 for this year’s selection,
“Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers.

“Zeitoun,” a true account chosen because of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, chronicles the life of Syrian-born Abdulrahman Zeitoun after he chooses to remain in New Orleans and protect his property after his family flees. Things go awry, leading to questions of human rights, when accusations of al-Qaida involvement are made in the tale. Eggers used a series of interviews and oral histories as the basis of his story.

“[‘Zeitoun’] connects events from five and ten years ago – events that occurred far away and events that occurred in our area – in a straightforward but nuanced manner that will challenge and reward New Paltz readers,” according to a OB/ONP press release. “[It] has been a popular choice due … to the timely subject matter, the lively writing and the dramatic story.”

Suggestions are made by the planning committee and accepted from the community during the program week for the following year, with the only requirement being accessibility; it must be a well-written, reasonably lengthed story that opens up a number of discussion topics for a wide readership. The list is then thinned down to three or four works, each of which is read by every committee member. A lengthy discussion follows, and the choice is made.

Previous selections include Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” appropriate of the 400th Anniversary of Henry Hudson setting sail, and Ewidge Danticat’s “The Dew Breaker,” which coincided with the first-year read for Composition I. Danticat actually came to New Paltz, gracing the community with a
discussion on the novel.

OB/ONP is the 2005 brainchild of Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach (CRREO) Director Gerald Benjamin, who was formerly the Dean of Liberal Arts and Science.

“Gerry thought up the idea of a community read as a town gown activity,” said OB/ONP Coordinator Jacqueline Andrews, who is also the assistant vice president of institutional research and planning on campus. Since its start, the group has been working at its goal of promoting reading, while also building and celebrating community.

Funding, although not much is required, is provided by CRREO. This included the hiring of adjunct English professor Kathena DeGrassi, who has been trying to further coordinate the project with the English department.

Although there’s definitely a good relationship with Department Chair Tom Olson, Andrews said, “We’re still trying to encourage people to get into the community reading spirit.”

Scheduled events for the 2010 OB/ONP include a poetry workshop and reading, an academic panel, a student panel with the New Paltz chapter of Amnesty International USA, a Katrina volunteer panel, a screening of Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” and a number of community book discussions facilitated by a variety of volunteers.

“[OB/ONP is] ultimately largely a community project,” DeGrassi said, “and all volunteer, based out of the goodness of their
hearts and schedules.”

Each venue, ranging from Elting Memorial Library to the Campus Honors Center to Water Street Market’s Mudd Puddle, has also volunteered for the group. An entire schedule of events can be found at