Iowa City Reads The Last Summer of Reason --City's Selection Resonates After Tragedy of 9/11

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Last spring, out of the masses of books energetically offered at BookExpo America 2001, Jim Harris, owner of Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City, Iowa, found himself compelled to pick up and read an advance copy of The Last Summer of Reason by Tahar Djaout (Ruminator), he recently told BTW.

The novel was found among the author's papers after he was murdered by Islamic extremists in Algeria in 1993. It's about a bookseller whose outrageous act of everyday rebellion is keeping his bookstore open in an unnamed country controlled by religious fundamentalists. [For BTW's previous story on Tahar Djaout and The Last Summer of Reason, see]

Djaout's book immediately came to Harris's mind when, in July, Burns Weston, director of the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights, came into Prairie Lights saying he wanted to organize a county-wide reading of one book, as cities such as Seattle and Chicago have done. "I thought [The Last Summer of Reason] would be ideal for the project," Harris said. "It was short, it sure dealt with human rights, and it was different…. Of course, the book wasn't actually published until October [2001]. And then there was September 11."

After the terrorist attacks, Harris was uncertain about his suggestion: "At first I thought maybe I selected the wrong book, maybe I should have chosen a safer book." The enormous popularity of the novel and the success of this first "All Johnson County Reads the Same Book" soon allayed Harris's doubts.

"The best part of this was the community involvement," he said. Harris stressed that there was only one meeting to organize the event -- attended primarily by local educators and librarians, who were "particularly instrumental." With very little publicity, untold numbers of people read The Last Summer of Reason between October 22 and December 5, participating in about 12 discussion groups that were held in bookstores, schools, and libraries throughout the county.

Author and journalist Tahar Djaout

Harris said he was especially impressed by how popular the book was "with all generations" and how it captivated all kinds of people. A discussion group that met at Prairie Lights was principally run by high school students. During one meeting, "a farmer showed up here who was raised in Algeria, and he had a lot to say," said Harris. Even while walking his dog the bookseller was approached by a neighbor eager to bend his ear about The Last Summer of Reason. Invigorated by the community reaction, Harris and his neighbors are planning future Johnson County Reads the Same Book events for the fall and spring.

Harris noted, "Although we've sold 729 [copies of The Last Summer of Reason] as of right now, very few of that total were 'hand sold' which is a testament to the book's strength and the Iowa City community. It's another way of saying, the book sold by word of mouth, since the New York Times didn't review it until December 23."

The Last Summer of Reason has received thoughtful reviews in major publications across the United States. American readers seem to find the book even more resonant because of our own tragedy at the hands of extremists -- and the crucial issues of freedom and human rights raised by the tragedy's aftermath.

"The book's message about the importance of tolerance for dissenting views couldn't be more timely. It's wonderful that Jim Harris and others are helping get the book out to a wide audience and getting such a strong response," said Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE). Ruminator Books Press is donating a percentage of its proceeds from sales of The Last Summer of Reason to ABFFE.

Pearl Kilbride, publisher of Ruminator Books, traveled to Iowa City on December 5 to attend "The First Winter of Reason: Writing, Human Rights, and the New World Order," where Algerian author and friend of Tahar Djaout, Assia Djebar spoke before an audience of 250 people. Kilbride said she is thrilled about Iowa City's embrace of Tahar Djaout's work and the strong interest of other American readers. She expressed her happiness about The Last Summer of Reason's success benefiting ABFFE: "It's been a good collaboration. This was the perfect book…. Unfortunately, the need for ABFFE is growing and growing."

Alison Vandenberg, publicity and marketing director at Ruminator Books, told BTW Ruminator Press has bought the rights to three more books by Djaout. They will publish Djaout's The Vigils in the fall.

-- Molly Sackler