Book discussions add fresh insight to ‘Tale’ title

Feb. 9, 2008
By Ben Beagle

Local librarians have a solution for cabin fever: a book discussion.
The first of 18 book discussions featuring this year’s “A Tale for Three Counties” selection, The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen, begins Feb. 16 at Wyoming Free Library, 114 South Academy St., Wyoming.
But these discussions are “not at all like the discussions you might remember from school,” said Meghan Hauser, a Perry resident who has participated in several past discussions organized through the community reading project.
“Book reading discussions are fun,” Hauser said. “No one will call on you, you don’t have to answer questions you don’t want to, you can participate as much or as little as you like.”
Discussions, at 14 public libraries in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties and Genesee Community College in Batavia, run through March 12. Mullen visits for talks and booksigning in each county March 13 to 15.
In between there is a book review program and historical presentations that connect events from Mullen’s fictional story to the very real 1918 flu pandemic, which is central to the story of The Last Town on Earth.
The novel, set in 1918, explores individual and societal issues as a town quarantines itself in an attempt to prevent an outbreak of the deadly flu that is spreading across the country.
At the same time, surprising political repression and tense emotions regarding the U.S. role in World War I and the fear of foreign spies threatens the town’s ideals.
“The topic is dark but timely,” says Mary Zangerle, director of Lee-Whedon Memorial Library, Medina. “The questions raised are innumerable. What would our community do? Could we sustain a quarantine? Book discussions create fodder for conversations in other aspects of our lives.”
Started six years ago, “A Tale for Three Counties” is designed to encourage people to read the same book and then discuss it with others in the community.
“I like to do it because it stretches the mind. I like to see how other people view the book,” said Janet Lee of Batavia. “Sometimes what I think is completely different from what someone else thought, and that makes it exciting.”
Sarah Bass of Silver Springs says the discussions add depth to the book.
“It opens up completely new interpretations,” she said. “The thing that surprises me almost every time is the range of different experiences everyone has about reading the same words; that as hard as an author may try to be concise the final say is still up to the reader.”
The upcoming discussions are about more than just the book – some even plan to have special treats.
Both Richmond Library and Woodward Memorial Library in Le Roy plan to serve a 1917 “War Cake.”
The cake is made without butter, eggs or milk, but “is a very tasty recipe,” said Richmond librarian Leslie DeLooze.
Several discussions plan to share local information about how the 1918 flu epidemic affected their communities through historic displays or special events. In Medina, a screening of a PBS documentary on the 1918 influenza is planned, and Le Roy will also offer a look at the Everett Massacre, a real-life event that plays a role in The Last Town on Earth.
“Book discussion is like a conversation and everyone takes part in it,” said Woodward director Sue Border, who led a workshop on having a discussion for librarians after a recent Tale for Three Counties Council meeting. “It is your chance to say what you think about the book. If there are points you would like to talk about or questions you have, this is the time to bring them up.”
A discussion leader typically introduces the program and will ask some questions to get people talking and guide the discussion. But it is an informal gathering, Border said.
“The leader is the facilitator, not the authority,” she said.
Book discussions are just one way to get involved with this year’s Tale project.
Readers are encouraged to share opinions about The Last Town on Earth in a book review contest sponsored by The Daily News. Up to six winners will be selected to have lunch with Mullen on March 14. (An entry form is found on page B-3 in today’s newspaper).
Two local historians will present programs about the 1918 influenza. On Feb. 20, Neil Johnson will give a lunch time lecture at Swan Library, 4 North Main St., Albion. On Feb. 27, Genesee County Historian Susan Conklin offers a similarly-themed talk at Richmond Memorial Library, 19 Ross St., Batavia. Both programs begin at 12:15 p.m.
Lee-Whedon Memorial Library is also planning to have a historian present a program about what was happening in Orleans County during the outbreak.
More than 1,000 people each year have participated in some part of the “Tale” project. Several libraries even started regular book discussion groups as a result of interest generated by the Tale talks.
Hauser, a regular at Perry Public Library’s monthly book discussions, said she is looking forward to hearing what people have to say at this month’s talk, scheduled Feb. 26.
“The topics really hit home,” she said. “It’s a very modern book, even though it is about a time so long ago.”

Getting involved in Tale is as simple as picking up the book. Copies of The Last Town on Earth are available for loan and purchase at libraries and bookstores in the three counties.
For a complete schedule of “Tale” events, check the project Web site at

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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