ELPIDIO ESTIOKO: Can reading books connect people, build communities?

In most cases, people read books alone, not in the company of others. We see them in the library, in a corner, in the bus, in their study room, in the park, or under a tree. This is the general practice for book lovers.

The question is: Can we transcend these solitary reading practices to be able to build communities and make us successful as a group? Generally speaking, reading books in and of itself cannot make you successful. However, reading enhances the chances of success. Reading allows you to learn from others’ mistakes and success. It also makes you to be creative, imaginative, and smart among other things; helping you achieve success faster. (thebookbuff.com)

When we read, we learn new things. And when we read together, we learn things not just about the book, but also about the people with whom we are read. When we all get On the Same Page, we make better collaborators and problem solvers because we understand our world a little bit better. We become a community of engaged, educated, and empathetic individuals. And we have the opportunity to make better families, better communities, and a better world.  (weareonthesamepage.org)

Well, these two resources validated the fact that we can connect with others and build communities through reading.

In 1998, Seattle started One Book, One Community, a project which emphasized the phenomenon of reading books to ignite and make the community more viable and connected. Since then, this reading program has been growing steadily across the country.

In 2003 in Silicon Valley, the Santa Clara County Library District (SCCLD) started the Silicon Valley Reads, a county-wide community engagement program and activities centered around books with a different theme every year. This kept the community connected most of the time.

Not known to many, for the last two decades, Silicon Valley Reads has brought people together with books and events centered on a focused theme that resonated with the community. This countywide reading engagement program will mark 20 years in 2023, with special programs at schools, libraries and local organizations, according to a press release issued by Mariana Walker, Associate Communications Officer, Santa Clara County Library District.

Walker stated that: “We will celebrate the anniversary and the kickoff of the 2023 season on Thursday, January 26, 2023 with an in-person and live-streamed author event including featured authors Tommy Orange, Amanda Skenandore and Kai Harris at the Visual & Performing Arts Center Theater at De Anza College in Cupertino.”

Two years ago, when the world experienced a global pandemic, Silicon Valley Reads gave people hope for the future with themes like “Connecting” and “The Power of Kindness, Resilience and Hope.” With these themes, the community was united and now is ready to move forward to 2023 with a theme: “Journey to New Beginnings.”

Jennifer Weeks, Santa Clara County Library District’s County Librarian and one of the co-chairs of Silicon Valley Reads said, “since then, Silicon Valley Reads has enjoyed a dynamic journey since its inception in 2003.” She co-chairs alongside Dr. Mary Ann Dewan, County Superintendent of Schools and Jill Bourne and Michelle Ornat, City of San José Library Director and Deputy Director, respectively. “We started as a one book, one community program in 2003 and over the years have broadened our scope to become more inclusive and reflective of the many communities that make up Silicon Valley.”

Also, Dr. Dewan had thoughts on the long history of Silicon Valley Reads: “We have been honored to engage with and serve the community throughout the years. Author visits and special programs are highlights for the students in our county. Silicon Valley Reads helps to increase literacy and demonstrates the importance of books, writing, and conversation for schools, parents, children and the community. It’s been a great journey and we are excited about the future.”

The theme Journey to New Beginnings features three adult fiction titles. The first is a novel titled There There by Tommy Orange. The novel features 12 characters from Native communities who are all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. This chorus of voices showcases the plight of the urban Native American–grappling with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and spirituality, with communion and sacrifice and heroism, hailed as a historical classic. There There won the 2019 PEN/Hemingway Award, the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award “John Leonard Prize” and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

The Second is Life of Mirielle West by Amanda Skenandore. This depicted the glamorous world of a silent film star’s wife which abruptly collapsed when she was exiled at the Carville Lepers Home, hundreds of miles from home. It is a story of courage, resilience, and reinvention set in 1920s Louisiana and Los Angeles.

Based on the true story of continental America’s only leper colony, The Second Life of Mirielle West brings vividly to life the Louisiana institution, where thousands of people were stripped of their civil rights, branded as lepers, and forcibly quarantined throughout the entire 20th century.

The 3rd one is What the Fireflies Knew by Kai Harris based on the perspective of 11-year-old Kenyatta Bernice (KB). It is a coming-of-age novel which followed KB and her teenage sister, Nia who were sent to live with their estranged grandfather after the death of their father and the loss of their home.  It is a moving novel about family, identity, and race, which revealed the heartbreaking but necessary component of growing up

“These three novels,” Jill Bourne emphasized, “has each feature unique journeys that act as mirrors or windows for our diverse community. Some people may relate to the plight of the characters, and others will glean insight into unique perspectives…”

The Silicon Valley Reads community engagement program is presented annually by Santa Clara County Library District, Santa Clara County Office of Education, and San José Public Library in conjunction with other public libraries, community colleges and universities, and community organizations.

In 2021, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the theme was “Connecting.” The following year, as the community continues to adapt to life during a pandemic, Silicon Valley Reads 2022 moved the community forward with the theme: “Harnessing the Power of Kindness, Resilience & Hope.”

The Board of Supervisors of Santa Clara County appointed San Jose resident Tshaka Campbell as 2022 -23 Santa Clara County Poet Laureate for a two-year term ending December 31, 2023.

County Librarian Jennifer Weeks said: “Poetry inspires us, as well as sheds light upon the emotional side of the human condition. The Library is a repository for the written word as well as a public space for poets to perform their work and future poets to learn the art form. We look forward to hosting poetry events with Tshaka during his term as County Poet Laureate.”

Supervisor Mike Wasserman, President of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and Chair of the Library Joint Powers Authority Board said: “Words hold great power to entertain, to inform, and to help us grow. The County of Santa Clara welcomes our new Poet Laureate and we look forward to the important contributions he brings to inspire a love and appreciation for poetry in our communities.”

As a former city commissioner and chairperson of the Library Education and Advisory Commission (LEAC), I can attest to the fact that Silicon Valley Reads have brought the neighborhoods together by reading the community-based novels and accompanying books during the duration of the reading program (January to March).


Campbell, the seventh poet laureate to be appointed by the County of Santa Clara Board of Supervisors, has authored four books (Tarman, Muted Whispers, Tunnel Vision and Stuff) and released three music albums (One, Bloodlines, and Skin Vol.1).

Nils Peterson was the County’s first Poet Laureate (2009-2011), followed by Sally Ashton (2012-13), David Perez (2014-2015), Arlene Biala (2016-17), Mike McGee (2018-19), and Janice Lobo Sapigao (2020-21).

Let’s move the community through reading by participating in the Silicon Valley Reads! Yes, it works!


(ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO was a veteran journalist in the Philippines and a multi-awarded journalist here in the US. For feedbacks, comments,  email the author at estiokoelpidio@gmail.com.)