Owens dreams big to promote literacy

LENOX — Jane Goodall, Liam Neeson and Desmond Tutu now belong to a distinguished group imagined and assembled by a Great Barrington native.

The three are featured in "The World Is Just a Book Away," an anthology of 60 prominent people's reflections on how reading has influenced their lives. It was released on Nov. 9 and, during its making, initiated a charity of the same name. Edited by James J. Owens, the literacy nonprofit's founder and CEO and a Monument Mountain Regional High School graduate, the book captures the literary inspirations of diverse luminaries, beginning with astronaut Buzz Aldrin and concluding with Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. Local ties include an entry by Yo-Yo Ma, an homage to "Moby Dick" by Martin Scorsese and an afterword by Neeson, whom Owens came to know while working as a production assistant during the filming of "Before and After" in the Berkshires.

"I would look for someone who did something that I thought was inspirational," Owens told The Eagle of his celebrity choices during a recent telephone interview in advance of his reading at The Lenox Library on Thursday, Dec. 7.

For example, he had heard human rights activist Nasrine Gross speak at a conference about defending women's rights in Afghanistan.

"I thought, wow, this is someone who really believes so passionately in her cause and in her work that she'd put her life at risk. And that inspired me, and I thought I'd like to learn more about what inspired her," Owens said.

The book celebrates reading's earth-altering effects. Goodall read one of the "Doctor Dolittle" books by Hugh Lofting in a tree when she was around 8 years old; soon thereafter, she was in Africa, starting a life's work in animal rights activism. The late Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, whom Owens first met at a Special Olympics event at Ski Butternut while he was in high school, writes about "Profiles in Courage," the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short biographies about eight U.S. senators authored by his brother, President John F. Kennedy (but perhaps primarily composed by Kennedy's speechwriter, Ted Sorensen).

"I think his submission to the book is so beautiful," Owens said. "He talks about ... how he would read and reread it for inspiration whenever he felt the need, how impactful that one book was on his life throughout his life."

The 60 figures' love for literature, however, isn't the only quality they share. They have now all been on the receiving end, directly or indirectly, of Owens' repeated inquiries during a 15-year project that took "hundreds" of people's hard work to complete.

"I probably leveraged every connection I had in the world to do this, to get the people in the book," he said.

He later got more specific.

"I counted one person was 36 points-of-contact over the years. It took me up to 10 years to get certain people in the book, and then other people were referrals. Jane Fonda referred me to Ted Turner, for example. Archbishop Tutu referred me to the Dalai Lama," Owens said.

Though his mother, Virginia, had instilled in him a love of reading from his earliest years, Owens was an unlikely candidate to produce such an anthology. After graduating from Monument Mountain in 1983 and Bates College in 1987, Owens embarked on a career in marketing and communications, working for companies such as Louis Vuitton in France and Coca-Cola in England and West Africa. Eventually, he came back to the U.S. to attend Columbia Business School. Upon earning his degree, he consulted for Bain & Company in Paris.

"Then I changed the course of my life," he said.

He returned to the Berkshires in the mid-1990s and took the job on "Before and After," fulfilling a desire to get involved in film. In 2002, he began working on the book, by that point having moved into the education sector. Neeson and his wife, the late Natasha Richardson, submitted the first entries, and it grew from there.

"Why have I been given the privilege of doing this?" Owens recalled asking himself. Then he realized, with these figures involved, "something even bigger than the book [could] happen."

In 2008, he decided to dedicate his book's profits to his own charity in hopes of building a library. Beginning under an umbrella organization before assuming its current independent status, Owens' organization constructed its first library in Sidoarjo, Indonesia, a city that was experiencing a mudflow disaster's effects. Since then, the organization has created about 69 more libraries in Indonesia, 19 in Mexico and a pilot project in Los Angeles. There are also two mobile libraries. The nonprofit's goal is to boost literacy and education by creating libraries and programs (an environmental education course with Goodall among them). Partnering with local communities is vital to these efforts.

"The hardest part isn't building [the libraries]," said Owens, who has traveled to more than 50 countries and seen "heart-wrenching poverty and children without access to quality educational materials" in many of them. "The hardest part is figuring out a model to partner with the community to make them sustainable, and we're working on that still. Indonesia, for example, the climate's very harsh. It's tropical, so it's very hard on the furniture, on the books and on the physical walls themselves, so how do we partner with the parents' committees to help refurbish the libraries? That's what we're looking at now."

The World Is Just a Book Away's programs have impacted more than 70,000 children, according to the organization.

"Dream your biggest dream," Owens said of one takeaway from his experience working on the book.

Sometimes, you're living your dream without knowing it. For a class at Monument Mountain, students were asked to create a timeline of their lives. Owens made his 125 years long.

"But in that timeline, at the age of 17, the optimistic age of 17, I wrote that I would help to build schools for children, and so I wasn't aware of that when I started the charity," he said. "I'd forgotten about the timeline."

Owens, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., but returns to the Berkshires every summer (often with his son, Alexander), found it a couple of years ago.

"It was in a box of books," he said.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.

If you go...

What: A reading by "The World is Just a Book Away" anthology editor James Owens

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 7

Where: The Lenox Library, 18 Main St., Lenox

Information: 413-637-0197; lenoxlib.org

From the book

Here is an excerpt from Jane Goodall's piece in "The World is Just a Book Away":

"I must have been about seven when I found a copy of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting at the local library, checked it out, and read it three times in one week. As the due date came nearer, I just couldn't bear to have it go back. The night before I had to return it, I stayed up late, reading with my torch under the bedclothes. The following Christmas my grandmother, who knew how much I loved the story, gave me a copy. I can still remember the thrill of opening that parcel.

Doctor Dolittle fed into my passion for animals. He learns to speak animal languages from Polynesia, the parrot, who educates him to be very observant: Watch how a dog twitches his nose and pay attention to how a horse flicks his ear. These things are actually terribly important for anyone studying animal behavior.

I found it magical then and I still find it magical today.

In that first book, Dr. Dolittle takes circus animals back to Africa, where they have many adventures. I believe that this sparked my passion for Africa. I read all the other Doctor Dolittle books after that and I continued to dream of that far off continent, which was home to all of those wonderful animals."


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