A Year of Books

Start a Year of Books with local authors - these are available at The Heritage Center in Smithfield, North Carolina.
Start a Year of Books with local authors – these are available at The Heritage Center in Smithfield, North Carolina.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is staking out “A Year of Books,” encouraging participants to read a new book every two weeks and discuss it in an online community. The first book is Moises Naim’s “The End of Power.”

I like the idea, but with a “buy local, read local” twist.

I’m new to Pine Level, North Carolina. Since moving here nine weeks ago, we haven’t even hooked up a TV. Instead, I’ve been reading stacks of Manassas, VA authors I didn’t make time to read – Victor Rook, Tamela Ritter, Dan Verner and Claudia Lefeve, to name a few. And I’ve begun to wander the literary landscape here, finding, with the help of new friends, a rich abundance to explore:

Little Free Library
In the next housing development, within sight of my front porch, a Pine Level neighbor has a chartered Little Free Library in her yard. I have already visited three times on dog walks to “take a book, return a book.” My current read is “Holes,” by NY author Louis Sachar. In Manassas, if you’re walking on South Grant Avenue, off Hastings Drive, you’ll find a Little Free Library on your right.

Meg Scovil, a part-time assistant at the Selma Public Library, told me about a writers group that meets the third Thursday of every month at 6:30 p.m., facilitated by educator Gary Ridout. I’ve been to two meetings so far and met other storytellers, ranging in age from middle school to lifelong learning. Ridout uses Piedmont Poet Laureate Carrie Knowles’s blog posts as a springboard for discussion.

A fellow writer, Rev. Rico Diamond, invited me to hear him as a guest speaker at the Dec. 28 services at Edgerton Memorial UMC in Selma. I look forward to reading his life story some day; for right now, he is leading a Prophetic Biblical Research Bible Study Program at Edgerton on Thursdays from 6:30 to 8:45 pm, starting January 8.

Yesterday, I took the advice of journalist Wingate Lassiter and visited The Heritage Center in Smithfield. Lassiter talked to our writers group about the pressing need for local writers to preserve the stories of Johnston County. He is a former director of the center, and co-author of “Johnston County: Its History Since 1746” with Thomas J. Lassiter.

The Heritage Center is housed in a former bank building, with first floor exhibits on Johnston County history, especially on how the settlement along the Neuse River became rich in agriculture and the advent of the railroad helped it to prosper. I viewed cotton, dried tobacco and a local student’s depiction of the manufacture of moonshine. I looked into the glass eyes of local wildlife – fox, black bear, deer and birds mounted in a display case. (So far we’ve encountered fox, rabbits, roosters and vultures in the fields near our house). Upstairs (there’s an elevator in the bank vault) in the third floor reading room, there is a modest glass display case featuring the life work of Shelby Stephenson, who was recently named the 2015 North Carolina Poet Laureate.

He lives just 20 miles down the road in Benson. The state press release said Stephenson “hopes to pursue three projects during his tenure: writing workshops in assisted living and retirement communities; raising awareness of local archives and family histories, and promoting writings about farm life in North Carolina.”

While there were no Stephenson books for sale at The Heritage Center, I picked up five books by local authors, including Lassiter’s history book and Julia Allen McCullers’s “A History of Smithfield, NC High School, 1903-1969, A Small Town, A Good School.”

I also picked up another copy of Billy Yeargin’s “Remembering North Carolina Tobacco.” I gave my autographed copy, which I’d bought at a TWM Antique Mall in Selma, to my friend and Lexington, NC poet, Barbara Presnell, when she came to visit on Saturday. She’s the one who told me about Johnston County’s reputation for moonshine. So I also bought Perry D. Sullivan’s “Lost Flowers: True Stories of the Moonshine King, Percy Flowers.” Finally, I added to the stack the last display copy of Dr. Elsie M. Collins’ memoir, “Blessed Are the Meek, the Humble, and the Bold.”

As if that wasn’t enough to keep me reading for months, I subscribed to the digital version of the News & Observer – which has its own Books section, as well as a “Tell Us About Your Book Club” prompt.

I found out my new church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Smithfield, has a book club that meets after the 8 o’clock service. Up for discussion at the Feb. 1 meeting is “Necessary Lies,” by Diane Chamberlain (set in North Carolina) and “Ukraina, Songs of a Beloved Land” by Jim Melnyk and Will Melnyk. That’s The Rev. Jim Melnyk’s book. He’s the rector at St. Paul’s. The book club also placed a Rubbermaid tub of donated books in the church’s Lawrence Hall, with a “take a book” sign. I helped myself this past Sunday to “The End of Your Life Book Club” by Will Schwalbe – the true story of Will and his mom, who started reading books together as a way to connect after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

I started reading it while I spent hours in the doctor’s office Monday, being passed from exam room to test equipment to lab, with lots of waiting in between, for my annual physical – which I hadn’t done in about four years.

As you contemplate your own Year of Books, consider exploring the authors who live in your community first. Look for their books in local independently-owned bookstores or museums. See if the public library has a local author shelf. Be on the lookout for Little Free Libraries popping up in neighborhoods – or build your own. It’s worth the time to explore your own literary landscape.

Happy reading in 2015!


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