By KIRSTEN LEVINGSTON
For Montclair Local
Kirsten Levingston moved to Montclair in 2008. She works in the city and writes on the side. In “Welcome to Montclair” she explores the quirks of this special town. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post and Baristanet.
Decades ago, television stations aired public service announcements encouraging children to read. In some of the spots a celebrity sat surrounded by children, talking up the importance of picking up a book. At the end of the ads the kids would shout the tagline in unison: “Reading is fundamental.”
In Montclair, reading is fundamental to building community.
Montclair encourages readers to ask both “what am I reading?” and “with whom am I reading?”
After moving to Montclair from Brooklyn, four book club invitations were slipped under my door before I had even unpacked my paperbacks. One was from fellow Brooklyn transplants, another from people from work, a third from lawyer friends, and I can’t even remember who rounded out the quartet.
Socializing around prose has always made sense to me. Once we celebrated my daughter’s birthday at the Brooklyn Public Library on Grand Army Plaza — a “Very Hungry Caterpillar”-themed throwdown complete with story time, serpentine cake, and goody bags with copies of “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” and “The Grouchy Ladybug,” equally compelling Eric Carle titles eclipsed by their voracious, shape-shifting sibling. And I have fond memories of participating in Scholastic book fairs in elementary school. After making our purchases we’d return to homeroom, spread out on the floor, and giddily begin a barter ritual akin to the post-Halloween candy exchange.
“Book club” is a misnomer for the activities undertaken by the collection of brilliant women I fell in with after moving here. We read and discuss books, sure. We also see movies, sip wine, celebrate new jobs and promotions, and plot activism.
Our literary choices sometimes inspire our meeting menus. The evening we discussed “The Handmaid’s Tale” I brought red velvet cupcakes, sweet homage to Offred and her sisters. And when we discussed Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful memoir, “The Light of the World,” I prepared her husband’s recipe for Shrimp Barka (see pages 9-10), “Eritrean fantasia food,” as Alexander describes it, combining tomatoes, dates, coconuts, parmesan cheese and magic.
Reading may be fundamental here because we are overrun with writers, real-life authors in residence. Local literati are so plentiful that our library has book displays dedicated to authors who live in the township. Our librarians have even spiced up the Dewey Decimal system by creating a special tag for the spines of books written by Montclair authors.
Even writers who live elsewhere make it a point to stop in Montclair on their book tours. I’ve enjoyed author talks at Watchung Booksellers (“Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination,” Professor Alondra Nelson), the Buzz Aldrin Middle School auditorium (“Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina,” Misty Copeland & townie Charisse Jones), and Central Presbyterian Church (“An American Marriage,” Tayari Jones).
Michelle Obama may not have passed through during her Becoming tour, but Montclair-based authors who wrote about her in “The Meaning of Michelle,” a collection of essays about her cultural significance, recently appeared as part of the Montclair Public Library’s Open Book/Open Mind series. When “Becoming” hits shelves in paperback perhaps Obama will reconsider.
Until then, this month we can enjoy the Montclair Literary Festival presented by Succeed2gether, a non-profit that provides children and families who lack equal access to educational resources with free, high quality enrichment and academic programs. Launched in 2017, the festival seeks “to engage the entire community in a celebration of reading, books, and Montclair’s vibrant and diverse literary scene.”
The event, which runs from March 20-24, features more than 130 authors, poets, and other participants appearing in venues across town — the Montclair Art Museum, Succeed2gether’s office on Pine Street, the Montclair Public Library, First Congregational Church and Watchung Booksellers.
One night there is a poetry slam open to middle school and high school artists and another day is the “Ultimate Book Club Experience,” where clubs can speak to authors they’ve read.
Year-round, the Adult School of Montclair offers classes focused on literary treasures. A recent workshop –“Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow: A Close Reading of Romeo & Juliet”—was taught by Yale-trained thespian Geoffrey Owens, who has actually appeared in the tragedy on Broadway. “One act at a time, participants will experience the thrill of reading aloud the world’s greatest romantic drama. The reading will be accompanied by the instructor’s comments regarding literary, historical and theatrical elements.” Brilliant!
Adult School of Montclair, can you please offer this course again (asking for a friend)?