Last fall, the Nashville Public Library launched its Nashville Reads program, conducting a citywide read of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and bringing Atwood to Nashville to speak. It was a gutsy choice handpicked by Mayor Karl Dean: a dystopian fiction about reproductive and individual rights whose eerily topical concerns sparked vigorous debate. It was also a major success, an engaging way to promote literacy and the library's standing as a cornerstone of the city's intellectual life.
The library's second choice for Nashville Reads, also approved by Dean, may prove even more popular — and generate as much or more discussion. It's Life of Pi by Yann Martel, the source of Ang Lee's current Best Picture nominee and one of the most widely read philosophical novels of recent decades. Translated into more than 40 languages and a staple of The New York Times best-seller list for 69 weeks, it's an adventure story framed in flashback about a 16-year-old Indian boy using his wits and scruples to survive adrift on the high seas ... with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
What makes Life of Pi an interesting choice, like The Handmaid's Tale, is its relevance to a topic of ongoing local concern: the coexistence of Christianity and Islam. The protagonist Pi, though raised a Hindu, weighs the relative values of the three religions and concludes that no one faith addresses all his spiritual beliefs — but elements of each just might. Given persistent controversies over Middle Tennessee's mosques in recent years, the book might generate reasonable open discussion rather than fear-mongering and flame wars.
Novelist, essayist and short-story author Martel (like Atwood, a Canadian) will give a lecture in conjunction with the citywide event March 2 at the downtown Nashville Public Library. Nashville Reads is a partnership between the office of Mayor Karl Dean, Parnassus Books, Humanities Tennessee, Houghton Mifflin and the Nashville Public Library Foundation. Watch for information in coming weeks about tickets and related events, including a screening of the film.