Be it at bedsides, in coffee shops or around campfires, the written word truly comes to life when it is shared with others.
And it is in that dynamic, discursive spirit that One Book, One Bakersfield, One Kern returns for its 10th year, with its selection of Sandra Cisneros' acclaimed first novel, "The House on Mango Street."
The community read, begun by a Bakersfield teacher inspired by other mass reading programs, is orchestrated by the Kern County Library in conjunction with Cal State Bakersfield.
Coinciding with National Hispanic Heritage Month, this year's book was selected by Emerson Case, an English professor and founder of CSUB's First Year Experience program, which will require all incoming freshmen to read "The House on Mango Street" right along with the rest of the community.
Case, who first read the book when he was an undergraduate himself, chose Cisneros' collection of brief vignettes because of its deft exploration of many universal themes, such as the acute pains of adolescence, as well as struggling to find one's place in the world.
"It's important to find that right kind of book, one that's very accessible," he said. "This story is about somebody making their transition into adulthood, which is a theme especially important for the freshmen reading this, who are making a transition themselves. At the same time, the idea of 'home' and what it means is something everybody can relate to."
The ability of "Mango Street" to transcend age, culture and ethnicity is pivotal because One Book, One Bakersfield, One Kern isn't simply about getting people to read -- it's about striking up a conversation; it's about creating a dialogue with people with whom you might never have spoken.
"The idea is to take one book, one great book that kind of has timeless themes, and then use that as a vehicle in your given town to get everybody reading at the same time," said Kristie Coons, a coordinator of the read. "In addition to reading, we want people thinking and discussing how those themes resonate with themselves individually, and with the community as a whole."
Which is precisely why this community-wide experience is bolstered with three months of public events, ranging from plays and poetry slams to Dia de los Muertos celebrations to community book discussions.
Everything kicks off Thursday at Noriega House and culminates on Nov. 8, when Cisneros herself will speak on campus at CSUB. Hoping to involve as many members of the community as possible, many of the events are free, or cost very little to attend.
Also, the library has stocked up on its stores of "Mango Street," ordering an additional 100 copies in English, as well as 50 copies in Spanish. Anyone hoping to read the book can check out a copy at any of the branches of the Kern County Library, and throughout the San Joaquin Valley Library System.
High school readers
Completing this city-wide reading circle are Mark Olsen's senior English classes at Independence High School, which will be reading the book over the course of the fall semester.
For Olsen, participation in the program is completely voluntary; he was persuaded to become involved because he feels One Book provides his students with an invaluable opportunity to learn about themselves through literature, while also becoming acquainted with the sort of work that awaits them in college.
"The students who participate in this do really well," he said. "Through this program they're getting all of this exposure to university life, as well as community experience and participation. There isn't anything that I don't like about this."
But for everyone involved, the true high point of the entire One Book, One Bakersfield, One Kern experience is when students and community members alike have the opportunity to meet and interact with the author.
For Case, an author's willingness to come to Bakersfield and speak is integral when selecting a book for the program, and the key to making what could simply be a bunch of people sitting and reading a book a truly unforgettable experience.
"The fact that students and people in the community have the opportunity to hear the author speaking to them and interacting with them -- that's the part that makes this program really work. The thought that this person that they've been reading and thinking about for four months would take the time to talk to them and ask them their name is what makes this a truly life-changing event."