Playing Soccer at the Library

by Bill Peak

I'm particular about what I read. Under normal circumstances, there's nothing I dislike more than having to read a book someone else has selected for me. But, then again, it's probably good from time to time to have someone shake us out of our complacencies, force us to read something outside our own personal mainstream. Which may go some way toward explaining why, every year, I look forward with a mix of dread and anticipation to One Maryland One Book.

One Maryland One Book is the Maryland Humanities Council's immensely popular program in which people all across the state read the same book at the same time. It is, of course, a given that books chosen by committee can end up reading as though they were also written by committee: earnest, flat-footed prose doing yeoman service to some pre-selected list of values. But somehow the Humanities Council has never forgotten that what really makes a book great is not its themes but its narrative. As we work our way through such a book, we begin to forget that we are reading and, instead, find ourselves carried along upon a great river of story toward an unknowable, irresistible something we're certain lies just around the next bend. And it is here that this year's One Maryland One Book really shines, for its author knows how to deliver the full reading-as-whitewater-rafting effect.

In “Outcasts United,” Warren St. John tells the true story of a coach who took a disparate group of refugee children (each of whose families—having escaped their own personal totalitarian horror-story—had been placed by resettlement services willy-nilly in a small, working-class suburb outside Atlanta) and turned them into a single unified whole: a soccer team. It is a quintessentially American story (people overlooking their differences to pursue a common goal), and like all good American stories, it turns many of our most treasured shibboleths on their head.

A member of the P.C. police, for instance, would doubtless pepper a story like this with admonitions to “celebrate diversity.” Instead, talking about places like Atlanta that find themselves suddenly possessed of highly diverse populations, St. John writes, “As diversity becomes the norm ... people cease to focus on it. Diversity becomes ‘no big deal.’ The key to making super-diversity work, in other words, may have less to do with embracing it than ignoring it. Or as the sociologist Lyn Lofland wrote in a book about city life, ‘Civility probably emerges more from indifference to diversity than from any appreciation of it.’”

I loved this book. At a time in my own life when the challenges seemed to arrive daily in big, lumbering pairs, it gave me a hero (the coach) and a group of likeable kids who overcame challenges that made mine pale by comparison. It inspired me to go on. The Maryland Humanities Council and I would like to share that inspiration with you. Drop by the library, check out a copy of “Outcasts United,” then sign up for one of the book discussions I'll be leading on the subject. I think you're going to love the ride.