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By Patricia Calhoun
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On September 1, Mayor Michael Hancock will announce the selection for the eighth annual One Book, One Denver program. I know it will not be a book by Thomas Hornsby Ferril. I know this because the program has never picked a book rooted in Denver, or even Colorado. (The closest we've come is Nick Arvin's Articles of War, but while Arvin lives in Denver, his book was set in World War II France.) I know this because the program likes to choose living authors (although an exception was made for Dashiell Hammet's The Thin Man). And, above all, I know this because if a book is too challenging, or too esoteric, or simply too poetic, it is not chosen. Instead, we're served up the literary equivalent of a Happy Meal, guaranteed to please the masses and maybe even have a little toy inside.
For this round's toy, Hancock will be making his announcement at the Denver Municipal Animal Shelter, which is a good clue that the book — Denverites got to vote between three pre-chosen finalists — will be The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, rather than Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, since neither of them is about a dog. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, the bestseller by the very living David Wroblewski, who actually calls Colorado home, does have dogs — but it also has more than 500 pages, so it was deemed ineligible from the start.
I just returned to Denver from Montana, where the 2011 One Book Montana selection is Blind Your Ponies, a novel about Montana by Stanley Gordon West. At a gas station in Bozeman, an entire shelf was dedicated to books about Montana, by Montanans. That state has fewer than a million residents, but it takes such pride in its literary history that a group of writers banded together to produce The Last Best Place, a thousand-plus-page anthology of writings about Montana that remains a classic (and a doorstop in many homes).
Chris Ransick, Denver's Poet Laureate from 2006-2010, was a clerk on that project; when he moved to Colorado in 1990, he was surprised to find nothing similar that captures the writing about this state. "It was always in the back of my mind that we would have to do that when the time comes," he remembers, and a few years ago he decided that time was coming. So he pulled together a crew of literary enthusiasts from across the state, and they're now in the process of "collecting anchoring texts," Ransick says, "the gimmes, the authors whose work we know really belongs. That's the easier step, in one sense. The later phase is going to be more obscure works. We're looking at this much more comprehensively, representing populations and people."
While Montana's book was put out in time for the state's centennial, in 1989, Ransick and his group do not have a particular timeline. They do not have a publisher, for that matter. "I am not going to rush this thing," he says. "We won't take it to completion unless we can do it really right."
What should they include? I'm pushing for Mark Twain's description of the Platte, and Jack Kerouac's riff on Denver in the late '40s, and some poems by Ferril, and excerpts from John Williams and John Fante (both dead) and from Kent Haruf (alive, though Plainsong was deemed too racy for Denver), and from all the other interesting books that mystery writers and novelists are producing in Denver right now. In the meantime, I just wish I could find them on the shelf of a gas station off I-70. Or on the list of One Book, One Denver. — Calhoun
For more on Colorado literature, read Calhoun's Wake-Up Call on the Latest Word.