Why Is Everyone Reading Sophie's Choice?
by Peggy Stillman and Andrea Kross
It all started when the Library of Virginia opened its Virginia Authors Room and invited William Styron, a native of Newport News, to give a presentation to help promote the new collection. Styron's program was a great success, attracting a tremendous audience. Later, Sandra Peterkin, Executive Director of the Library of Virginia Foundation, and Deborah Hocutt, Executive Director of the Virginia Center for the Book, were brainstorming about programming within the context of the mission and goals of the Library of Virginia, looking for ways to promote literature and Virginia authors and to renew interest in reading in general. One of the ideas that came up was to take a book and encourage the entire state to read it and then discuss it, like a state-wide book discussion group. They didn't have to ponder the choice of the book for long; they recalled Styron's recent presentation, and his book Sophie's Choice seemed perfect: it would allow them to connect with groups within the community including Jewish organizations, it appeals to a wide range of readers, and it's a challenging novel that stimulates people to think and gives them plenty to talk about, which might allow them to understand others' viewpoints and to think about things in a different way. They called this program All Virginia Reads Sophie's Choice, by William Styron.
Though Sophie's Choice was published in 1979, its themes are timeless. It's about injustice, intolerance, hatred, and the struggle to survive in a world that seems full of evil. After the movie Schindler's List, the average person knows a great deal about the Holocaust. However, few people know that the Nazis exterminated millions of people who were not Jewish in the concentration camps. As the number of Holocaust survivors steadily declines, hate groups claiming that the Holocaust was a hoax continue to recruit naive young members. The Holocaust story is as relevant today as it ever was. To celebrate the book's twenty year anniversary, a new edition has been published with an afterword by William Styron, adapted from the speech he delivered in October 1996 at the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
While it is beautifully written, Sophie's Choice is not easy reading. It is sprinkled with unfamiliar words that may make you reach for a dictionary, if you can stop reading long enough to do so. The narrator, a twenty-two year old aspiring writer from Virginia, is constantly thinking about and striving to manifest his first sexual experience. Sophie's irresistible attraction to Nathan, a violent and self-destructive man, and her profound feelings of guilt are slowly explained, "layer after layer like an onion," as Styron elegantly says in his afterword. These revelations may make readers feel uncomfortable, but it's precisely this challenge that makes it worthwhile. The novel is provocative, controversial; it forces its readers to confront their own fears and prejudices, offering no easy answers. At the same time, it is a book about the relationships of three people; the reader is emotionally drawn into their lives. At this level, it is as much of a page-turner as the best Danielle Steele novel. Many of us saw the 1982 movie adaptation of Sophie's Choice, a condensed version of the story; as is always the case, reading the book provides a completely different experience.
William Styron has embraced this program enthusiastically. "I hope I stir things up," he told reporter Bill McKelway in an interview that appeared March 17th, 2000 in the Richmond Times Dispatch. He has committed to nine months of talks and programs at public libraries and bookstores across the state, often accompanied and introduced by Jim West, his biographer. Styron's life is everyman's life: he has experienced nearly all of the events and tragedies that could befall the average man. West's book, William Styron: A Life, describes a very complex person in a very readable format. Both authors conclude their programs with book signings.
On May 1st, the Jewish community held their annual Yom HaShoah Holocaust Remembrance Program in the grand lobby of the Library of Virginia; this year's program was entitled, "Could you make the choice?" and was based on Sophie's Choice. Michael Berenbaum, former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, spoke to more than four hundred attendees. He observed that in the years leading up to Hilter's reign, the Nazis were purging and cleansing libraries of controversial books, those they didn't agree with; later of course they began to purge and cleanse the world of controversial people. Berenbaum commented on the powerful connection between libraries and intellectual freedom and the important role that libraries play in providing access to all books, controversial or not.
One of the goals of the All Virginia Reads program is to involve educational groups. On June 22nd, the Library of Virginia hosted a conference for teachers of advanced placement English and United States history. These teachers discussed methods of teaching Sophie's Choice and shared lesson plans. Sophie's Choice is required summer reading for the students of Hollins University; in September, students and alumni will be invited to a symposium featuring William Styron. On October 18th, Styron and West will participate in an interactive teleconference aimed at advanced high school seniors and college students. This teleconference will be broadcast over ITV (Instructional Television) and will be available to public television stations across the state. An academic study guide on Sophie's Choice created by Paul Olsen, a professor at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, will be available for educational use. Olsen, who teaches a course on Sophie's Choice each year to upper level classes, will also adapt this guide for a general audience. This reader's guide will be available in bookstores free of charge for those who purchase Sophie's Choice.
Copies of Death Dreams of Mourning, a documentary film by Charles Kiselyak detailing the making of the film version of Sophie's Choice, will be made available to public libraries, schools, and community centers across the state; it will also be shown on public television (WCVE in Richmond and WHTJ in Charlottesville). Random House has provided Virginia public radio stations with a free copy of the audio version of Sophie's Choice. This radio reading is supported by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities & Public Policy. In the week of December 2nd, public television stations will broadcast Jim West's April 26, 2000 interview with William Styron.
The Closing Session of the Virginia Library Association's Annual Conference will feature William Styron and Jim West, with a book signing afterward, on October 20th in Norfolk. This event will be free to the public but will require reservations for those who are not registered for the conference. The program will conclude on December 2nd with a gala celebration of William Styron and his work in the grand lobby of the Library of Virginia. Meryl Streep, who won the Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Sophie, and Kevin Kline, a Golden Globe Nominee for Best New Film Star for his portrayal of Sophie's lover, Nathan, will host the event. Various individuals significant to William Styron will pay tribute to him during the course of the evening. Bruce Hornsby, a native of Williamsburg, will entertain the crowd with music from the movie. Ticket sale proceeds will be used to establish the William Styron Endowment for the Virginia Authors Room at the Library of Virginia.
Good ideas, like good books, never go away. After December, look for a bimonthly column entitled "All Virginia Reads" in newspapers across the state. This column, produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities & Public Policy, will encourage critical reading and provide suggestions for all types of reading groups by highlighting selected authors and their books.