Want To Help Save the World? This New Book Club Offers a Novel Approach

November 21, 2022 By Eric Williamson, williamson@virginia.edu Eric Williamson, williamson@virginia.edu

No disrespect to your book club, but one being offered by the University of Virginia, in partnership with the United Nations, just might help save the world.

Read for Action, created by the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy’s Humanitarian Collaborative, kicked off earlier this month alongside the United Nations’ annual climate change meeting, known as COP27, which convened this year in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt.

The free online book club, which anyone can join, focuses on recent novels whose characters struggle with realistic, geography-spanning humanitarian crises.

The club’s primary architects – Batten School professor Kirsten Gelsdorf and Humanitarian Collaborative practitioner fellow Adrienne Ghaly – are calling readers to the social media platform Discord to discuss the books.

There, participants can learn about, and act upon, ways to help with similar problems in the real world.

“What makes this book club unique is that readers connect not only with other readers, but with authors, literary scholars, researchers and humanitarian experts from around the world,” Ghaly said.

The club is built on the premise that current humanitarian advocacy often relies on the public’s reaction to news. But news feeds can just as easily lead to doom-scrolling, hopelessness and disengagement.  

Reading fiction, however, requires longer and deeper reflection on complex characters and contexts. The organizers say that can help the reader ask important questions that may lead to social engagement – questions that Read for Action members can immediately discuss with humanitarian policy practitioners and authors.

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Portraits of Kirsten Gelsdorf and Adrienne Ghaly
The book club is the brainchild of Batten School professor Kirsten Gelsdorf and Humanitarian Collaborative practitioner fellow Adrienne Ghaly. (Batten, Arts & Sciences photos)

“The idea for the book club arose from Kirsten’s research studying the effectiveness of humanitarian advocacy and my research on the efficacy of fiction for engagement and social action,” Ghaly said. “I used my class on the novel and the refugee crisis as a case study. The novels immersed students in the lives of characters who were responding to complex situations. Students were reading and discussing collaboratively, which created a real sense of community and empowerment to act.”

Ghaly and Gelsdorf said they are confident the engagement they documented at the classroom level can extrapolate to a global audience.

The project is funded by UVA’s Environmental Resilience Institute, with support from the Institute for the Humanities and Global Cultures, Environmental Humanities, and Brown College.

The first book the club will discuss is “The Displacements” by UVA’s Bruce Holsinger, an English professor who has written several widely read novels.

"The Displacements" will be read through Dec. 7, with a livestreamed conversation noon to 1:15 p.m. that day. The Holsinger book will be followed by “Exit West” by Moshin Hamid, from Jan. 15 to Feb. 15, and “How Beautiful We Were,” by Imbolo Mbue, from Feb. 20 to March 20.

“The Displacements” imagines the aftermath of this country’s first Category 6 hurricane, focusing on the impact it has on a wealthy Miami family forced to relocate to a federal encampment.

“I’m eager to be part of these new conversations around fiction and humanitarian action, and I am excited to see how the various constituencies involved in Read for Action engage the important questions at the center of the project,” Holsinger said.

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Eric Williamson

University News Senior Associate University Communications