Following the 2016 presidential election, staff at the American Booksellers Association discussed ways to support booksellers in a time of deep political division. The conversations led to the creation of the Open Discussion Project, a joint initiative of the National Coalition Against Censorship, the ABA, and the National Institute for Civil Discourse. The pilot program, which is designed to get conservatives and liberals to engage in dialogue with each other through book conversations, debuted this month.
Chris Finan, executive director of the NCAC, sums up the program’s aims with a simple tagline: “The goal is not conversion; it’s conversation.” The program is designed to help foster discussion among people with very different views on challenging issues by providing participating booksellers with trained mediators, book lists, question lists, and other support materials.
Six stores have signed on to participate in the initial pilot. Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., and Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, N.C., hosted events earlier this month. Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Ill.; Gibson’s Books in Concord, N.H.; Schuler’s Books in Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, Calif., will launch the program shortly. Initial events will focus on how to have difficult conversations. Subsequent programs will be based on books from the Right and the Left, including Bruce Canon Gibney’s A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America, late conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer’s Things That Matter, and education expert Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System.
Finan credits Quail Ridge manager Sarah Godden with being instrumental in transforming the concept for OPD from simply providing stores book lists to facilitating events. In 2017, Godden launched a monthly series called Bridging the Divide, in which books and hosts alternated by political persuasion. She quickly discovered that there were challenges for the moderators as well as the attendees. “It’s been kind of hard sometimes for some of the moderators to be nonpartisan and realize that they’re there to lead a discussion and not lead toward a conclusion or a particular viewpoint,” Godden says.
Conservative readers were sometimes reluctant to attend. “They consider bookstores to be inherently liberal places where they won’t necessarily be welcomed,” Godden notes. But despite the difficulties, she has seen the series draw 25 to 35 people each month across a wide political spectrum. Participants have learned, she says, that “people aren’t evil just because they think differently than you do.”
Finan acknowledges that the project may not be a good fit for all stores, particularly those that have a committed opposition to the Trump administration, but he says there are a large number of stores where readers will go for these kinds of conversations. “The evidence so far is that there are people out there who need to be reassured that they are wanted,” Finan says. “I think there is a reserve of goodwill among liberals, who, despite their distaste for the president, recognize the importance of conversation for democracy. After all, what option have we got for democracy other than engaging people who disagree to find compromise that allows for progress?”
A panel titled “Bookstores Launch the Open Discussion Project” will be held Thursday, January 24, 3:40–4:40 p.m., Acoma/Tesuque/Zuni, 32 Lower West ACC.