One Book One Community committee members Maryann Fallek and Linda Welles discuss Sherman Alexie's "War Dances." (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

One Book One New Paltz officially kicked off with its first event last weekend at SUNY New Paltz where actors from the Mohonk Mountain Stage Company read from this year’s book of choice — War Dances by Sherman Alexie.

For kids and young adults, their townwide reading assignment is also a book by Alexie — The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Alexie was born on a Spokane tribal reservation in northeastern Washington State, and the true diary book is his autobiography about growing up there.

Organizers of One Book are feeling excited about 2011 — it will be the first year that SUNY New Paltz freshmen are required to read the same book as the rest of the townspeople. According to the college’s Assistant Vice President Jacqueline Andrews, getting the community and the college undergrads on the same page was a feat that required a lot of planning.

“This year is unique because it’s the first year that we’ve collaborated so completely with the college,” explained organizer Linda Welles.

Each year at the college incoming first-year students are required to read a book to discuss in class during the fall. The change that English Department Chairman Thomas Olsen came up with was to have students reading the One Book.

Another key change is that some of the events for One Book One New Paltz will take place in the lecture hall on campus — and everyone in the community, student or not, is invited to attend and discuss War Dances.

“So this year, we have more activities than we ever had,” Andrews explained.

Students at the college have some involvement in the planning of One Book this year too. Senior Pete Thompson, an English major, sat on the committee that helped to pick the book and organize the events.

War Dances was something that resounded with most of the committee because it is a collection of short stories, which allows people to enjoy it in bite-sized chunks and for readings of entire shorts to be done during One Book events.

“There were a lot of choices,” Thompson said of the books. Alexi’s book beat out Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter and Barbara Ehrenreich’s investigative non-fiction piece Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

“It was a very, very exhilarating process,” Andrews said. Selecting the book is a hard process, but for the committee members something about War Dances stood out. It won with 12 votes out of 16.

A former writer for the New Paltz Oracle college newspaper, the young member of the One Book One New Paltz Committee became interested in the annual event in a novel way. Last year, Thompson was the writer assigned to cover the One Book events and the interest grew.

One Book Committee members talked about their job with the glee of a close-knit book club. Welles, for instance, admitted that she might never have picked up War Dances on her own. “I’m thrilled to have been introduced to him,” she said of Alexie’s writing.

Not only will the college have a much more connected role in 2011, but the events for the seventh annual celebration of reading will stretch on until Oct. 30 — including readings at the Celebration of the Arts festival on Huguenot Street on Oct. 8 and book discussions throughout town.

For a full list of the events this year or to register to be in on those lecture hall discussions of the book, head to www.onebookonenewpaltz.org. Copies of War Dances and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are available at Inquiring Minds Bookstore, at 6 Church Street in New Paltz, or at Barner Books, at 3 Church Street. ++