“One Book, One New Paltz” is an annual series of free events centered around a chosen book and its major themes. This past week, the program returned for its 18th and final run. This signaled the end of a long tradition between SUNY New Paltz and the local community.
The “One Book, One New Paltz” committee was formed in 2005 by Jerry Benjamin of the Benjamin Center. It was originally created as a way to foster positive relationships between the university and the town by creating a shared reading experience. The committee has historically chosen culturally relevant books and centered discussions, presentations and events, expanding on the topics covered in the novels.
This year’s congregation was centered around the book “Klara and the Sun,” the most recent novel from Nobel laureate author Kazua Ishiguro. “Klara and the Sun,” long listed for the 2021 Booker prize, follows a young AI friend, Klara, as she becomes a companion for a sick girl, Josie. The book tackles themes of faith, loneliness, human relationships and artificial intelligence, integrating them into a compelling dystopian sci-fi story from the perspective of Klara.
This year, the committee hosted a multitude of events relating to these ideas. The week started on Sunday, where a book discussion was held, followed by a screening of WALL-E. On Monday night, archaeoastronomer, Glenn Kreisberg and artist, Jeanne Bouza Rose, put on presentations discussing Sun worship in Indigenous cultures highlighting the many forgotten megalithic structures that Northern American Indigenous peoples built. Wednesday had a presentation by author Larry Carr, and Thursday and Friday had discussions on artificial intelligence and the ethical questions within Klara and the Sun, respectively.
The week wrapped up with a build-a-robot session for kids on Saturday, followed by another book discussion reflecting on the week. The events had a small but lively attendance who readily asked questions and engaged in the conversation.
Despite the insightful discussions, the program will be ending this year after an 18 year long run. This leaves “Klara and the Sun” as the group’s final read. According to Dr. Robin Jacobowitz, director of education projects at the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz and coordinator of “One Book, One New Paltz” for years, it came down to attendance. “Participation has been dwindling for the last several years.” said Jacobowitz. “We’ve tried to build up committee participation and we just aren’t getting new people.” In addition to this, attendance by the community has been sporadic and unpredictable, but has been trending downwards, especially with young people. This seemed like a missed opportunity, as much of the discussion was pertinent to the future that New Paltz students will be shaping.
Although this was the committee’s last event, it leaves a strong legacy behind it. Since 2005, “One Book One New Paltz,” has read powerful and timely books, engaged in thoughtful and provoking discussions with the community, held presentations with industry and thought leaders and brought the college and the New Paltz community together in a tighter bond. “It’s bittersweet. I think it’s the right thing to do given the circumstances, but it will be sad to see it go,” said Jacobowitz.