Sunday January 27, 2013

LENOX -- In a unique, multimedia project, the town library has organized a series of events and discussions, both online and at the library, aimed at encouraging more citizen participation in local government.

The free programs, extending from Feb. 1 into early April, include a community-wide reading of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Empire Falls" by Richard Russo, which is set in an aging industrial town in central Maine but is based on the author’s early experiences in Gloversville, N.Y.

A screening of the 2005 HBO film based on the book, starring Paul Newman, Helen Hunt, Ed Harris and Philip Seymour Hoffman, will be among the scheduled events.

Dubbed "Lenox Reads Together," the project was recently unveiled by the library Executive Director Sharon Hawkes before enthusiastic members of the Lenox Select Board at Wednesday night’s meeting.

"It’s one big book club," said Selectman John McNinch.

Select Board Chairman Kenneth Fowler, noting he has already started reading the novel, exclaimed that he "can’t wait for everyone to read this book, because the topics covered in these personalities in the small town are really marvelous. It’s very thought-provoking. A great idea."

"I think it actually dovetails into what we’ve been talking about -- budgets, towns making choices and empowering people to think about what we’re doing," said Selectman Channing Gibson.


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The idea was triggered by conversations among library and town leaders "about how people can get more involved in town government," said Hawkes in an interview ahead of the meeting. "It can be confusing for people to come to meetings, sort it all out and figure out whom they should talk to, and how."

Although the fictional "Empire Falls" is not Lenox, she added that "there are some parallels in the story."

Town Manager Gregory Federspiel said he welcomed the project as a way to encourage discussion by residents on how to confront the major issues facing the town in the years ahead.

"We’re responding to the needs of the community," Hawkes explained. "The dilemma came up, everyone is pressed for time, you don’t think about town government until you run up against a bylaw that affects your way of life and you want answers. We hope to provide an entertaining format to get the community together and talking."

The quandary of a slow-growth community that faces major entitlement obligations, especially health care, for current and future municipal retirees, as well as costly sewer system upgrades, is a constant topic at Select Board and Finance Committee sessions as the 2014 fiscal year budget is prepared.

"It takes everyone’s involvement," Hawkes said. "We’re hoping this will start a discussion about Lenox’s future -- what does it take to make community successful? Local government is where it can happen."

The goal, she said, is to encourage residents to meet with town government leaders because "officials want to talk to the citizens so let’s get them talking back. Committees, agendas, protocols, budgets -- how can we weed through it all to effect change? We hope that, by talking about the sometimes humorous, sometimes horrific community of ‘Empire Falls,’ we can also think about how we all play a part in helping our town to thrive."

In order to accommodate as many readers as possible, additional copies of the book are available at the library for borrowers; the novel also can be purchased at The Bookstore on Housatonic Street.

Readers have been invited to offer feedback by email and on the library’s Facebook page throughout February. The HBO film will be screened at the library at 6:30 p.m. on two Saturdays, March 2 and 9. Follow-up discussions will be held at the library on Thursday, March 14, at 6:30 p.m. and at The Bookstore on Thursday, April 4, at 7 p.m.

"Farewell to Factory Towns?", a documentary about the collapse of industry in North Adams and the development of Mass MoCA as an arts center and a linchpin of economic recovery, will be screened, followed by a conversation with the film’s creator, retired MCLA Economics Professor Maynard Seider, on Wednesday, March 20, at 6:30 p.m.

Those free public events will lead up to a pair of discussion sessions between citizens and town government officials in early April, Hawkes said. The exact dates and locations will be announced later.

Information about the project is available at the library’s main desk, by email at info@lenoxlib.org or by calling (413) 637-2630. Online resources include www.facebook.com/LenoxLibrary or lenoxlib.org.

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@yahoo.com or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto