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The Book Club Revolution: Victoria Champagne Sutherland Turns a Page with TC Reads

Robert Downes - November 4th, 2004
Books are glorious vehicles, capable of transporting the reader to faraway lands, distant times and into the souls of other lives. To share that adventure, Victoria Champagne Sutherland launched the TC Reads program two years ago, bringing the light of literature to many new readers in the area. It’s an idea that dovetails nicely with the surge of interest in book clubs -- primarily enjoyed by women readers -- that is sweeping the nation.
An ardent proponent of reading, Victoria is the publisher of ForeWord magazine, a high quality trade journal which circulates reviews of independently published books to the movers & shakers of the bookworld. In ForeWord, a librarian or bookstore owner can read a review of, say, “The Pirate Queen” a book about legendary women of the sea, and decide whether to add it to her shelves. The magazine got started in 1998 when Sutherland left the Jenkins Group book distribution firm to team up with writers Anne Stanton and Mardi Link. “When we started, there were 50,000 books being published each year, and now there are 175,000,” Sutherland recalls.
“We review books from smaller publishing houses who we think are putting out the better books but don’t have the marketing arm to get the word out,” she adds. Her company also represents small publishers overseas for resale rights at events such as the globally-important Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany which Taylor just returned from in September.

Throughout the year, Sutherland and her staff peruse thousands of books, with the more notable ones receiving a review. The ebb and flow of books has given her a discerning eye for good reads.
Several years ago, while serving as the literary chair for the Zonta Club in Traverse City, Sutherland began looking around for new ideas for a literacy program.
“I was reading to some kids one Saturday morning at one of our events and I noticed that their mothers were also reading their own books on the stairs while they were waiting,” she recalls. “I saw how much these books were affecting the lives of these women.”
Around that time, Sutherland also learned of the efforts of Nancy Pearl of the Seattle Center for the Book. “She’s the mother of the ‘One Book/One Community’ programs because she started the first one 10 years ago in Seattle.”
The One Book/One Community movement is based on the idea of everyone in town reading the same book and then getting together and discussing its message, both informally over kitchen tables and lunch counters, or through book discussion groups.
Energized by the idea, Sutherland and Traverse District Library Director Richard Schneider launched TC Reads two years ago with the idea of pulling the community together with a shared love of reading.
It’s something of a revolution.
“We’re trying to get people away from their TV sets and electronics and back into talking about books at the dinner table,” she says. “TV is just too easy for people -- that’s another reason we’re so emphatic about getting this program going.”
Some critics have argued that programs such as One Book/One Community or the book recommendations made by Oprah Winfrey result in unfair windfalls for a select few writers.
“Who cares?” Sutherland responds to the Oprah question. “She’s getting people reading, and a lot of her fans are undereducated women. She turned the publishing industry on end and I think she backed out of it because there was so much pressure on her to select certain authors.” Since getting back in the habit of advocating books to her audience, Oprah has taken care to include classics in her choices, such as “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck.

Locally, many book clubs follow the TC Reads selections, and up to 100 extra copies of its picks are on loan at the Traverse library.
“Our first year was really sensational because the author came to town to meet with readers,” Sutherland says. She adds that a touchstone of TC Reads has been to select a book with a sense of connection to Northern Michigan. “Peace Like a River” was about a crime in a small town in the upper Midwest, packing the same sort of characters one might expect to find in Leelanau or Emmet County. “We try to pick a book that’s geographically similar to our area or has something in common.”
TC Reads struck a chord with readers and got off the ground with good word-of-mouth and marketing. TC Light and Power donated banners strung up along the Parkway through town, and there were contributions from the local Copy Shop and Rotary Charities.
It’s gotten tougher to pick books since that first blush, however. In fact, “It’s horrible to make a decision,” Sutherland notes, adding that some communities, such as Chicago, have never been able to reach agreement on a single book to read and have remained splintered in their choices.
That’s because there are so many books competing for the reader’s attention in America and no lack of individual tastes. This year, a TC Reads committee narrowed the possibilities down to five titles and then asked the public for their thoughts on the matter. The winner (and current reading choice) was “Snow in August” by Pete Hamill.

“Snow in August” is a story about overcoming racism and anti-semitism. Set midway through the 20th century, it’s a coming-of-age story about a young man who witnesses a hate crime and ends up befriending a rabbi who is a refugee from Prague and doesn’t speak English. The story is set against the backdrop of ballplayer Jackie Robinson overcoming racial barriers to join the Brooklyn Dodgers.
TC Reads has organized a month-long series of events covering everything from baseball to Judaism and dealing with bullies. The capper is a visit by One Book/One Community founder Nancy Pearl on Wednesday, Nov. 10 at the Traverse Area District Library at 7 p.m.
Needless to say, TC Reads has been a hit with local book clubs, which have grown in popularity with area women.
Why the interest in reading in the age of the Internet and 500-channel TV?
“People are tired of being stuck at home and not talking to anyone. They want to talk to their friends and neighbors and book clubs are a healthy way to share,” Sutherland says.
“You can’t believe who shows up at the book discussion groups,” she adds. “I think it’s thrilling that people want to read and converse with others about their books.”
Married to freelance editor and entrepreneur Matt Sutherland, who helped stage the recent Epicurean Classic in town, Victoria is currently building a base of volunteers to spread the One Book/One Community concept across Northern Michigan to Leelanau and Benzie counties as well as Petoskey and Harbor Springs.
“The great thing about a program like this is that it allows people to read and be part of something where class lines and money don’t matter.”

Upcoming events for Snow in August
Following are some TC Reads activities relating to Pete Hamill’s novel on coping with intolerance. Events are free of charge and open to the public:

• Nov. 3: Book discussion group, Community Health Library, noon. Bring a sack lunch. Also, at Horizon Books, downtown TC, 7 p.m.

• Nov. 4: “No Bullies Allowed,” featuring Mark Gustafson chatting with parents and children on how to deal with violence and why it is so pervasive in films and literature. Gustafson is a retired professor of English.

• Nov. 9: Book discussion book, Horizon Books, dowtown TC, 7 p.m.

• Nov. 10: “Book Lust,” a presentation by Nancy Pearl, founder of One Book/One Community, at the Traverse Area District Library, 7 p.m.

• Nov. 13: Book discussion group, Borders, TC, 10 a.m.

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