Saratoga Reads expects a lot from a book.
“Of course it has to be very well written,” said chairwoman Tabitha Orthwein, “but there are fantastic reads we wouldn’t choose. Our books have to act as a springboard into a larger conversation.”
The choice for 2013, Solomon Northup’s memoir “Twelve Years a Slave” she said, is a perfect example of such a springboard book.
The literary population must have agreed because nearly 100 locals gathered in an Empire State College conference room Sunday afternoon to kick off the read.
“There is an element of literacy encouragement,” she said, “but we also want to build community. If you see a person in a coffee shop reading this book, you have a built-in conversation.”
She chatted in the college lounge as the crowd watched the 2003 HBO slave narrative documentary “Unchained Memories” in the next room.
“Was worth the paddling to see that gal,” came Samuel L. Jackson’s gravelly voice, muffled by the conference room door.
“We didn’t want to have any spoilers,” she said, explaining they showed the film to provide some background on the history of slavery while not ruining the plot line of “Twelve Years a Slave.”
Away from readers’ ears, she recounted a heavily condensed, Cliff’s Notes version of the story.
Northup was a successful fiddle player in Saratoga in 1841 when he was tricked into traveling south with a carnival. Men promised him good money for his fiddle playing, “but he found himself in a slave yard,” she said.
It took 12 years to get word of his whereabouts back north, but eventually two Saratoga residents went down to Louisiana to get him. The tale is told through his narration.
“It’s quite a story,” she said.
Saratoga Reads has grown steadily over the years. Every October for nearly a decade, locals have voted for the next year’s book, reading it in greater and greater numbers. The new book though, brought out even more readers than expected.
“Five years ago, we would have been lucky to get 25 people at an event like this,” she said, “and I would have known everyone in the room.”
Mary Kruchinski, one of the 100 to attend Sunday’s event, is still on a waiting list for the book at Saratoga Public library after a month — every one of the 70-odd copies in circulation.
There’s no way to count the copies sold at local bookstores or online, but Orthwein estimates there are at least a few hundred people reading the book as part of the program.
“It’s hard to calculate. Reading is such a solitary thing,” she said.
Orthwein speculated the popularity might have something to do with an upcoming Hollywood adaptation of “Twelve Years a Slave” set to come out later this year, but Kruchinski had a different explanation.
“This area has a special connection to Northup,” she said. “I only heard about this because he was from here.”
In fact, July 20 is Northup Day in the city, and has been since the 1990s. There’s a backlog of local interest.
“Without the help of this community, Northup would not have been able to return to his freedom,” said Northup Day organizer Johnnie Roberts, encouraging the community to continue working toward race equality more than a century and a half later.
A dozen events are planned in the area in conjunction with the read. Learn more at www.saratogareads.org.