An Open Book

"The hippies with their drug-fried synapses and political lobotomies give the town the distinctive tone that we locals have a phrase to describe," writes on-again-off-again local Stephen Coonts in his travel memoir The Cannibal Queen. "When you see something really screwy or kinky, you say how 'very Boulder' that is."

And when the Boulder Public Library announced last week that it was accepting nominations for its first "One Book, One Boulder" program, it offered up some very Boulder requirements. First, nominated books can't be more than 350 pages and must be printed in other languages as well as English. Preference will be given to "living authors who are engaging, informative public speakers." That effectively rules out the iconic Howl, written by late Naropa University poet Allen Ginsberg, as well as anything by that other Colorado icon, Hunter S. Thompson, since he's engaging but essentially incoherent at this point.

"We need a book that has a couple of strong themes that will provoke good discussion," explains Boulder Library special-programs coordinator Carol Heepke. "It really is a great way to bring together corners of the community that don't normally come together."

The BPL has received a dozen nominations so far, the most popular being Kent Haruf's Plainsong, which was edged out of the recent "One Book, One Denver" program by Leif Enger's Peace Like a River. Haruf's very much alive, and Plainsong's a lovely read set in Colorado, in the fictitious plains town of Holt, but the book deals with issues that are completely outside the typical Boulderite's realm of experience. Poverty and meat, for starters. "Of course, it was just recently on television, and that helps," Heepke says of the Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Plainsong that aired in April. "A film or movie also makes the whole thing more accessible to someone who won't sit down and read a book but could at least see it and then talk about the themes."

She points to Chicago's experience with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as evidence of how One Book events can transcend the literary set. The Windy City screened the movie and then had several high-powered lawyers re-enact Mockingbird's famous courtroom scene. "We're also looking for some ways to have unique programming," Heepke says. "We're hoping to find some things to involve the arts community, or maybe the lawyers, or maybe the police."

Well, then, could there be a better book for Boulder than Lawrence Schiller's Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: The Uncensored Story of the JonBenet Murder and the Grand Jury's Search for the Final Truth? It takes care of both lawyers and cops, catches newcomers up on the town's history, and offers numerous themes for discussion.

"[In 1972] CU students voted en masse, and Alex Hunter's percentages from the campus precincts were enormous," Schiller writes. "That same year, liberals who advocated controlling the growth of Boulder and protecting the environment won a number of local races and formed a new establishment. Boulder had survived the transient hippies and the antiwar movement and was coming into its own. The city elected a black mayor and issued its first same-sex marriage license. Soon some would call it the People's Republic of Boulder."

Those last words echo in several books. Local author Lynn Erickson's thriller On Thin Ice, for example: "Ellie had a love-hate relationship with the town. It had been called Disneyland, Colorado. It had been dubbed Eden and Utopia. Residents joked it was the People's Republic of Boulder." And Erickson's just one of several mystery writers who've called Boulder home. Stephen White sets most of his novels there. When he isn't suing the University of Colorado for violation of Title IX, attorney Baine Kerr writes books, too.

The University of Colorado's leader has quite a literary background herself -- even though her specialty involves very dead authors. In a deposition given earlier this month in connection with one of those Title IX suits, CU president Betsy Hoffman was asked about the word "cunt," which had been used by members of the football team when Katie Hnida was a kicker with the Buffs. First noting that cunt is usually seen as a swear word, Hoffman, a medieval scholar, said she had also "heard it used as a term of endearment."

Choosing Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales for "One Book, One Boulder" could finally get the entire town on the same page about what really happened with the football team's recruiting program, and could also instruct future players on the proper use of the C-word that rhymes with punt. Beware the tome's translation, however: Most versions of The Canterbury Tales have replaced cunt with puss, queint or quim, as in, "He made a grab and caught her by the quim."

Boulder could also grab Sam Kashner by the balls and embrace his book When I Was Cool. Kashner's coming-of-age tale (emerging theme!) includes all of the essential elements that define Boulder -- hippies, drugs and Jack Kerouac -- plus compelling writing that would draw people typically turned off by Ivory Tower book clubs.

"These are letters from camp," he writes. "Beat camp. My counselors happened to be former Beats. Allen Ginsberg taught me swimming and Swinburne; William Burroughs took us deep into the forest and then told us which of us was probably an alien; Gregory Corso taught us how to sing -- the camp song was an aria from Pagliacci and his philosophy was strictly jail yard: 'Never rat on a friend.'

"I was initially afraid of the Beats; I even tried to stay away from them. But they were my teachers, so I couldn't avoid them for long. I had nothing to offer them. I wanted them to make me an artist. I wanted the noble calling of literature. There was nothing I could do but enter the hive."

The ideal choice, of course, would be Stephen King's The Stand, the post-apocalyptic story of God's surviving followers flocking to Boulder, which becomes the cradle of a new society, while all the bad people -- the followers of the "Dark Man" -- head to Vegas.

"'In my dreams I saw myself going west,'" Mother Abigail prophesizes in the tale. 'At first with just a few people, then a few more, then a few more. West, always west, until I could see the Rocky Mountains. It got so there was a whole caravan of us, two hundred or more. And there would be, not signs from God but regular road-signs, and every one of them saying things like BOULDER, COLORADO, 609 MILES or THIS WAY TO BOULDER.'"

Except for its length, a whopping 1,168 pages in the uncut form, The Stand meets all of the library's requirements: King's alive, he's an engaging public speaker, the book's available in paperback, large print and foreign languages, it's at a high school reading level, and there's a 1994 TV mini-series based on the book starring Gary Sinise, Rob Lowe and Molly Ringwald. Could any other book have a better chance of creating One Boulder? After all, when King needed a place to plop all the good people, he didn't pick Colorado Springs.

For its book program in 2002, Colorado Springs went with To Kill a Mockingbird. Two years out from that experience, Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau president Terry Sullivan has his own recommendation for Boulder: Newport in the Rockies. "It's a great historical story of some of the colorful historical figures," he says. "We would invite the Boulder residents to come and stay at the Broadmoor and read the book."

But that might not be enough to bridge the cultural gaps between the two towns. According to, Springs residents are busy reading Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power, by David Aikman; When Thunder Rolled: An F-105 Pilot Over North Vietnam, by local author Ed Rasimus; and Everyone Else Must Fail: The Unvarnished Truth about Oracle and Larry Ellison, by Karen Southwick. As for Boulderites? They're buried in Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life, by David Grinspoon; Myths of Light: Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal, by Joseph Campbell; Has Science Found God? The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Universe, by Victor Stenger, and John Nichols's Milagro Beanfield War.

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Amy Haimerl