Communities thrive when people talk honestly about issues that matter. "All Fairfax Reads," a project of the Fairfax County public library system, has a simple goal: to launch a community conversation about how we interact with people we think are "different."

This summer, the library invites residents to read Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," one of the best-loved classics of all time.

More than 30 million copies of the book have been sold since it was published in 1960, and it has been translated into more than 40 languages. The 1962 film won three Academy Awards, and in 1999, librarians across the United States voted "To Kill a Mockingbird" the best novel of the 20th century.

"A classic is a book that never finished saying what it has to say," wrote author Italo Calvino. "To Kill a Mockingbird" still has much to say about a community's struggle with the moral and ethical issues that define it. Times have changed, but our struggle to accept differences has not.

Today one in five Washington area residents was born outside the United States. Even for people born in this country, the desire to "fit in" sometimes goes unmet, and dysfunctional attempts to meet this need can lead to joining gangs, engaging in criminal activity or disengaging from society.

In 1995, sociologist Robert D. Putnam published an article in the Journal of Democracy that became his important book "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community." Putnam argues that fewer and fewer Americans are involved in civic activities. Fewer people vote, join community groups or get to know their neighbors. The reasons range from TV and computers to two-career families and generational shifts.

Putnam contends that this decrease in face-to-face interaction threatens school performance, democratic participation, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection and even health.

As the chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, it is my privilege to work with hundreds of boards, authorities, commissions and civic organizations. Thousands of Fairfax County residents care deeply about this community and work tirelessly to make it the best it can be.

However, there remain a troubling number of individuals who aren't engaged. They may be new Americans or new to our language. They may be elderly, disabled or one of the working poor.

They are people from every demographic who, for whatever reason, see themselves as outsiders. They're disengaged and in danger of not fully reaping our society's rewards.

Since 1998, more than 100 American towns, cities and counties have participated in community-wide reading projects such as "All Fairfax Reads," and they report a striking result: Strangers talk to one another, the first step toward community engagement. Reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" together will give us a common experience from which community bonds can be tied, and Fairfax's vibrant civic life can be renewed.

I urge county residents to participate in "All Fairfax Reads" and start conversations about "To Kill a Mockingbird" with neighbors, co-workers, friends and relatives.

Learning to engage with each other, whatever our backgrounds, will help make Fairfax County a stronger, more resilient community. Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) discusses the county library system's project called "All Fairfax Reads," inviting area residents to read Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" in an effort to spark a conversation about issues raised in the novel. The film version will be shown at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Pohick Regional Library, 6450 Sydenstricker Rd., Burke.