Searching for Democracy: California Reads (2012)

California Reads

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Interview with Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

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Interview with Daniel Alarcón

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Interview with Rick Beeman

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Interview with Rebecca Solnit

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How do we come together to talk about things that matter to us all? California Reads provides a springboard to think about and discuss ideas that are critical to life in our state using a diverse set of five thought-provoking books.


California Reads is a new program of Cal Humanities developed in partnership with the California Center for the Book and the California State Library. It invites Californians from all walks of life throughout our state to participate in reading and discussion programs and related activities hosted by libraries, schools, colleges, bookstores and other community institutions. Click HERE to see descriptions of all the California Reads library projects.                                                         

To coincide with our two-year statewide initiative to animate a public conversation on democracy and civic values leading into the 2012 elections, our current theme is Searching for Democracy. Programming aligned with this theme will be conducted through the end of November 2012 by libraries and collaborating entities throughout the state. The big idea? To stimulate a thoughtful reflection of, and lively discussion among, friends and neighbors, families and strangers about the past, present, and future of democracy.

Five thought-provoking books were chosen from a pool of over 300 titles nominated by members of the public, and based upon the final recommendations of an advisory group of librarians, authors, scholars, publishers and critics.


The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution: A Fully Annotated Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Amendments, and Selections from The Federalist Papers, by Richard Beeman. Annotated by one of the nation’s foremost Constitutional scholars, this compact edition of our nation’s founding documents provides text and context for readers seeking to understand the framework of our democracy as well as its meaning, past and present.

Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston. A heartbreaking and compelling memoir about the Japanese American internment experience as seen through the eyes of young girl, this personal story bears witness to a failure of American democracy.

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit. A masterwork of narrative nonfiction by a contemporary California writer reaches some surprising conclusions about our need for community and common purpose, which she argues are fundamental to democratic forms of social and political life.

It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis. This underappreciated classic by one of America’s greatest novelists, first published in 1935, imagines a chillingly undemocratic America. It details the rise of a populist politician as he creates a fascist regime, and reminds us of the fragility of our democratic institutions.

Lost City Radio, by Daniel Alarcón. A haunting novel by a young California writer explores the aftermath of a traumatic civil war in a fictitious South American country, and raises questions about the importance of historical knowledge, collective memory, and public access to information in a democratic society.


Cal Humanities and partners have developed resources to support participation by libraries, schools, colleges and universities, museums, booksellers, and community organizations and government agencies, along with interested individuals. Discussion guides for each book provide an overview of the book and author, a series of discussion questions to begin conversations, a brief author interview, bibliographies, and other supplemental resources for interested readers. A K-12 curriculum guide for each book is also available (see below) to further support classroom activities. All of these materials, along with additional resources and information about Searching for Democracy and California Reads public programs and activities at libraries and other community venues, can be found here our website. Check our calendar for upcoming events in your area.

Interested in hosting your own book discussion? Download and share our California Reads discussion guides.

Discussion Guides

Interested in hosting your own book discussion? Download and share our California Reads discussion guides.

Farewell to Manzanar The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution A Paradise Built in Hell It Can’t Happen Here Lost City Radio Lost City Radio, Spanish Version

Curriculum Guides

Interested in California Reads book-related resources for your classroom? Download and share our California Reads curriculum guides.

Farewell to Manzanar The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution A Paradise Built in Hell It Can’t Happen Here Lost City Radio

Watch a webinar overview of curriculum resources

The California Reads program is a project of Cal Humanities, supported in part by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, administered in California by the State Librarian.”

We thank the California Center for the Book and initiative partners for working closely with us on this round of California Reads.

For more information about this grant and resource program, please contact Senior Program Officer Felicia Kelley.

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