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Social Literary Intellectualism

by Uzzie Cannon

August 6,2007

Relocating back to Charlotte, after a sojourn to graduate school and my first tenure-track teaching job in English, was supposed to be a move into my grown-up life of owning a home, having a great job, and socializing with some of the best literary intellectuals the Southeast has to offer. Well, two out of three haven’t been bad. I finally bought a home in an area poised for growth and I now work at a university whose future looks promising. However, Charlotte is not a haven for social literary intellectualism. Of course, literary intellectualism is not and will never be the cornerstone for financial development in this New South or any other locale, and I am far from suggesting that it should be. Nevertheless, there is room enough for other social events to take off in this mini metropolis. Given the fact that many people just don’t read anymore, a move toward a “One City, One Book” reading event at least couldn’t hurt. On a grand scale, this is social literary intellectualism at its best.

Now let me appease the skeptics about social literary intellectualism. Gone are the days where, as they sat in the Ivory Tower pontificating hour upon hour, only the elite and erudite could study the great works of the world or could decipher a William Faulkner or Toni Morrison novel. Literary intellectualism doesn’t required one to have Merriam-Webster’s vocabulary or understand most of the French theorists behind Poststructuralism. Yes, we can now socially discuss literary texts without reference to many of the “isms” that surround literary study and still make the conversation intellectual; all we need are willing bodies and minds of all ages to gather throughout the city over coffee, tea, or milk and analyze why any caliber of author writes as he or she does. The benefits of such programming are numerous: a greater reading public, an abundance of knowledge, cultural awareness, a relaxing evening (did I mention good wine goes great with good literature?), and finally, a great way to meet people.

“One City, One Book” is not the brainchild of this literarily starved socialite. I have helped coordinate it in two other southern cities: Greensboro, NC and Savannah, GA. Minds have grown and friends have been made as a city discussed Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying, Richard Seltzer’s Mortal Lessons, James White’s The Color of Water, and the works of Flannery O’Connor. We gathered in libraries, in the break room, on sofas in the den, on the pristine pews at church, the coffee house on the corner, and the pub downtown. Local schools and colleges hosted discussion panels for those who had to use some “ism” in the discussion. A group of culturally diverse community residents get together to select a text accessible to everyone from a recommended list. The democratic process of selecting a book doesn’t mean everyone will like a book. There are those who often come to detest a novel, which is okay as long as they can explain during the discussion why they do so. This is a practice in dissent, which happens to be another benefit of the event. Whatever the thoughts of the book, at least we know our citizens are thinking! There are no losers in social literary intellectualism.

Returning to Charlotte has been exciting for me as I establish my home and career here. What hasn’t been so exciting is locating individuals outside work who love to read and discuss what they have read. Social literary intellectualism starts with a desire to know, and Charlotte, unfortunately, from my vantage point, isn’t a city completely in the know. Sure, it knows its banking and finance, redevelopment, transportation, and sports. Yet it seems social literary intellectualism isn’t yet on the agenda. Knowledge is and will forever be power. Reading is the best way to jumpstart the process of knowing.

Yes, I know my perspective seem quite personal and relative, but I also know that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Without social literary intellectualism, I am the weakest link. So I ask, “Dude, where is my social literary intellectualism?"

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