Local public libraries are inviting Loudoun County's 235,000 residents to join one big book club.
They want people to drop by one of the county's seven public libraries, pick up a free copy of "The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness," by Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal, and read it this summer.
"What if everyone in Loudoun County read the same book?" the Loudoun County library system asked in newspaper ads promoting the club, One Book -- One Community. "Strong communities can exist only when people trust each other enough to talk honestly about the issues that matter to them."
Linda Holtslander, assistant director of the library system, came up with the idea as a way to collaborate with schools, religious groups and others in the community.
"We're asking people to read something that can make them think," said Judy Coughlin, who represents Leesburg on the Loudoun County library board of trustees. "The idea is to try to get as many people as possible discussing broad and deep moral issues from the same base."
The first half of Wiesenthal's book is his account of a dying Nazi soldier who asked him to forgive his crimes against Jews. That essay is followed by responses from dozens of contemporary activists and philosophers about what they would have done in Wiesenthal's place.
The book is available near the information desk at each library, but prospective readers should hurry: Four hours after the book became available Monday, two branches -- Ashburn and Eastern Loudoun Regional -- had run out. Nearly 1,000 of the 1,531 books were grabbed in the first two days, although Holtslander said the library would order more if necessary.
The books and a discussion series are being financed through part of a $1 million gift from Irwin W. Uran, a multimillionaire investor known for his philanthropy to Loudoun institutions. The portion being spent on the One Book -- One Community initiative was not available from library officials.
"Loudoun County is growing very rapidly, and a lot of the connections one makes are very transitory and very superficial," said Lorraine Davis, an adjunct professor at Shenandoah University in Leesburg who participated in discussions on how to implement Uran's gift. "This is a way to make a meaningful connection."
Davis, who planned to reread the book for the event, said she hoped to encourage fellow members of the Congregation Sha'are Shalom in Leesburg to read the book as well.
In September, Loudoun libraries will host discussions on the book, perform a dramatic version of it with two actors and explore its themes in films and concerts. A series of guests, including Chinese human rights activist Harry Wu and Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, will visit Loudoun libraries to share their thoughts on the work.
Coughlin said that in an era in which people gain knowledge in so many ways outside of books, One Book -- One Community could inspire readers to seek additional information using the library's resources.
"Something in this book might pique your interest, and you want to go explore in many different directions," she said, adding that she hoped it would draw new users to the library system.
Although the book's narrations of violence and suffering may not be suitable for younger children, it is being used as an educational tool for students at Northern Virginia Community College and Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn.
It will be an encouraged read for English as a Second Language students at NVCC and others, said Beverly Blois, dean of the humanities department at the Loudoun campus. Bob Pannozzo will assign it to his history and philosophy students at Stone Bridge.
"Kids learn how to look at an issue from a different perspective and consider other points of view," said Pannozzo, chairman of the school's social studies department. He said that being part of a community in which others have read the same work will be particularly beneficial. "It's like a university -- you want different perspectives," he said.
Although as many people as possible are urged to experience the book together, discussion is not required to participate.
"People can be part of this by doing no more than reading this in the privacy of their own home," Holtslander said. "There is no right or wrong answer. It's an individual answer."