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Release: Oct. 12, 2001

(Editors and News Directors: To receive a review copy of "The Last Summer of Reason," contact Alison Vandenberg, Ruminator Books, 651-699-7038.)

UI Center for Human Rights launches community reading project

In recent years, Seattle, Chicago, and other cities across the country have launched community reading programs that encourage everyone to read the same book at the same time. Amid these efforts, emeritus law professor Burns Weston, director of The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights (UICHR), asked himself: "What if all Johnson County were to read the same human rights book at the same time?"

Together with the UI International Writing Program, Prairie Lights Bookstore, the Iowa City Human Rights Commission, and the Iowa City and Coralville public libraries, the UICHR is launching a county-wide reading project in which every adult and adolescent in Johnson County is invited to read "The Last Summer of Reason" by the late Algerian writer Tahar Djaout, whose death was attributed to an Islamic fundamentalist group. Co-sponsors include Hancher Auditorium, the UI Institute for Cinema and Culture, the University Book Store, Iowa Book, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Also participating are the Iowa City Schools and the West High Library. Others may be added. The project, "Johnson County Reads the Same Book," begins Oct. 22.

Weston said the UICHR selected the book well before Sept. 11, upon the recommendations of Christopher Merrill, director of the UI International Writing Program, and Jim Harris, owner of Prairie Lights Bookstore. He said it addresses, "the culture of intolerance in a setting that is Muslim, but one that can be found among the absolutist interpreters of every religious faith--Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and others as well as Muslims. A brilliant foreword by Nigerian author and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka makes this point explicitly." 

The plan is for UI faculty, staff, and students, high school juniors and seniors, literary groups, faith-based organizations, and others in Johnson County to read the book before Dec. 5 when Nobel nominee Assia Djebar, Algerian author of "So Vast the Prison" and "Algerian White," and Larry Siems from the PEN Freedom-to-Write Committee will visit Iowa City to discuss Djaout's novel and the impact of religious fanaticism on free expression and other human rights. Participating bookstores are selling the novel at a 25 percent discount.

Djaout's short novel, only 145 pages long, is about the haunting absurdities of a religiously fanatical state and its brutal assault upon a small bookstore owner, Boualem Yekker. Djaout, a poet and journalist as well as a novelist, was himself attacked by fanatical assassins as he was leaving his home in Bainem, Algeria on May 26, 1993. The unfinished manuscript for "The Last Summer of Reason" was found among his papers after his premature death.

"The book addresses precisely the problem we face in the world today--the lethal consequences of rigidly doctrinaire interpretations of religious texts," Merrill said.

The book has been well received by critics. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune called it "powerful, elegant, and grimly topical," and the Detroit Free Press wrote, "One naturally thinks of Camus and Kafka in the desolation and claustrophobia Djaout captures."

Ruminator Books based in St. Paul, Minn., acquired the book for publication in the United States. The French government paid for the English translation and hosted publisher Pearl Kilbride for a week in Paris to discuss its cultural and political importance.

"We had no way of knowing the illustrative power and eloquence this small fable would have after Sept. 11," said Harris. "Many of us have learned much about human rights from the struggles in South Africa and the leadership of Nelson Mandela. Our wish is that we gain something more through the artistry of Tahar Djaout in North Africa."

The visit by Djebar and Siems will be sponsored by the International Writing Program in cooperation with the UICHR. It will include a showing and discussion of "The Women of the Nouba," a 90-minute film, half faction-half documentary, involving interviews of women from the Nouba region of Algeria and written by Djebar.

The idea of having as many people as possible read a single book together originated four years ago in Seattle. It has since spread to other cities, including Chicago, Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y., Springfield, Ill., and Boise, Idaho. Credit for the original idea is given to Nancy Pearl, a Seattle librarian. "It's based on the noble idea of community. My noble idea was that people would come together who would never come together any other way. Literature brings them together because a book touches them," she said.

For details about the project, consult the Web site for the UI Center for Human Rights at <http://www.uichr.org> where, among other things, pertinent discussion notes and questions will be posted. The Iowa City Press-Citizen will host an online discussion of the book at <http://www.press-citizen.com>.