In Chicago, September is when many kids return to school — but they aren’t the only ones with a reading assignment. The Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” program is back for another year, and library officials have announced the 2020 selection: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.
Part of the program’s larger theme of “Beyond Borders,” the 2017 novel follows a refugee couple that flees their home using magical doors to travel around the globe. Reset caught up with Jennifer Lizak, who heads up the library program, for more details.
On the idea behind “One Book, One Chicago”
Jennifer Lizak: It’s a citywide reading program for adults. We pick a theme and we pick a book every year, and we do a lot of different events and ways that you can engage with the theme that we pulled from the book. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a great way for people who are no longer in school who are adults to pick a new book to read and take a really deep dive into and explore every year.
On adapting to the pandemic
Lizak: It’s definitely a challenge as everything is right now, but we were able to plan very quickly in the spring and sort of pivot to making all of our programs be virtual. So we are going to have almost exactly the same amount that we would have normally had in branches and different locations, but they will all be online. So we’ll have over 40 different virtual programs. We’ll have three or four different web TV series. We’re gonna have guest blogs, Twitter chats, all kinds of different ways that people can engage with the season from the comfort of their couch.
On why the Chicago Public Library chose Exit West
Lizak: It’s a beautiful book. If you haven’t read it, you have a great opportunity to do so now at your local library — go check it out. Books are available at library shelves, and of course, the e-book and the audiobook are available on our website as well. So definitely I encourage everybody to give it a read. It’s one of those books that really I think for me, at least when I read it, it stayed with me for months afterward. … I think it tells a story that’s in some ways universal. It’s a story of this couple who need to leave where they grew up because of danger, and they choose to very bravely embark upon a new path for their life and set the course of their life. And that’s a story that is very familiar with many, if not all of us. And so you follow them as they go through all these different things that they experience in their way to forging that path for themselves.
Even if we have grandparents, let’s say, that came to America, there’s still choices that we might have made about why we moved to Chicago from a small town or why we moved from one state to another. So those stories of family journeys and what kind of shapes your identity, I think continue beyond just leaving one country for another.
On the meaning behind the “Beyond Borders” theme
Lizak: We chose the theme “Beyond Borders” because we think that sort of relates to the journey of the couple in the book. They go beyond these various borders, through these magical doors as they make their way in life. But we thought that that larger theme was a good way of looking at things, questions like: What if there was a world without borders? What are the things that have shaped our self, our identity, our family’s journey? What are our immigration stories? Our migration stories? And how does that influence us and influence our city and influence our country? And so that’s sort of the overall kind of theme that we want to look at through the book.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.