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Book Review: The World is Just a Book Away, compiled by James J. Owens

Article written for by Lois Hendersen

This anthology of first-hand accounts of how books and reading inspired sixty celebrities from a broad spectrum of fields worldwide to reach for the stars (in both a literal and metaphorical sense) is both highly motivating and potentially wide-reaching in the impact that it can make, not only on the children who can be helped by the libraries built, the books bought and the educational programs run from any profits that are made from the sale of the text, but also in terms of broadening the readers’ scope and depth of understanding regarding the impact that the written word can have on all who are involved with the propagation of literacy and with literary output, whether as creator or consumer of the texts concerned. James J. Owens, founder of the non-profit organization of The World is Just a Book Away, which is also the title of the work, took fifteen years to assemble the input of a wide range of celebrities, from fields as widely dispersed as law and the military to sports coaching and space travel.

With some of the pieces being only a few paragraphs long, to those stretching over a few pages, the words of these nobly endowed experts in their own spheres, of whom five are Nobel laureates (including Dr. George Olah, Hungarian and American chemist; Dr. Sherwood Rowland, professor of chemistry at the University of California; Dr. Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and civil society leader; and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, South African anti-apartheid and social rights activist), are so real and down to earth that they should keep any reader riveted from start to finish.

The multicultural element is extremely strong in The World is Just a Book Away, as befits a work of this nature. Despite many of the contributors being American, many others either come from mixed descent or from abroad, with the Irish (in the form of Gabriel Byrne, Irish actor and film director/producer, and Aiden Quinn, Irish-American actor), British (in the form of Jude Law, English actor, and Vanessa Redgrave, English actress and political activist) and Middle Eastern (in the form of Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian in space, and Shirin Ebadi, Iranian lawyer and founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran) presence being most marked.

While some of the contributors focus on the pivotal role that a single work has played in their life (with the American activist Daniel Ellsburg, for instance, choosing to write about the influence of H.D. Thoreau’s essay titled On Resistance to Civil Government (later published as On the Duty of Civil Disobedience) on his own civil rights struggle), others discuss the overall impact of a range of literary works on their own coming of age (such as Frank Gehry, whose own inner moral compass took shape under the influence of such pioneering greats as James Joyce and Marcel Proust).

The one major criticism that might be leveled at this awesome and highly motivational collection is its structural organization. If Owens had arranged entries in terms of the sphere of activity in which these prominent individuals have excelled, rather than alphabetically, one cannot but feel that stronger coherence and cohesiveness would have been lent to the central tenet of The World is Just a Book Away. The work would also have been rendered all the more accessible if the books and authors referred to had been highlighted in the text, and indexes to the contributors, as well as to the aforementioned books and authors, had been addended to the main portion of the text. Each of the contributors should also have been allocated a few lines of biography, which would be extremely helpful for those who do not have backup volumes to consult in order to obtain such detail.

No matter who you are, or where you come from, you are likely to find yourself transformed by what these highly gifted people of renown have to say about books and reading, and the joyfulness and inspiration that they can bring. The World is Just a Book Away truly brings the rest of the globe closer than it might otherwise have been.


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