You get on a bus, scan the sea of indifferent faces in search of the person least likely to be psycho, when you spot someone with eyes glued to the same book you've been reading. You sit down, start a conversation. In a small way, the world suddenly seems a friendlier place.
Now imagine the same scene played out throughout a city. Picture strangers having something more to talk about than the weather, or the disappointing hometown team. Visualize the walls tumbling down.
That's the pie-in-the-sky idea behind "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book . . .," a project being launched this week by The Washington Center for the Book.
Throughout the month, the center is urging the city's readers and book groups to read Russell Banks' "The Sweet Hereafter," a 1991 novel about a school-bus accident and its impact on a small upstate New York town. Then, early next month, Banks will come to Seattle to participate in readings and discussions citywide.
To get the project under way, tomorrow night the Seattle Public Library will screen the film version of the book. And starting next week, public radio station KUOW-FM (94.9) will begin airing a reading of the entire novel by local actors.
Presiding over this Seattle version of Oprah's Book Club is Nancy Pearl, the executive director of The Washington Center for the Book, the Seattle Public Library's literary programming arm.
"My hope is that it's a unifying experience in a city that's very, very diverse; that it's a way of bringing people together," Pearl said.
In Seattle, with its established book culture and abundance of reading groups, the concept is likely to be a best-seller.
Eleven of the 17 book groups sponsored by the library, and another 40 private book groups are participating in the project, Pearl said. They've all requested copies of the center's free reading group "toolbox," a pamphlet that includes background information on the author and his works, along with discussion prompts. Some have also reserved the 300 extra copies of the book ordered by the library for the event.
The center also has 10,000 "I'm reading Russell Banks" buttons ready for distribution. Pearl's hope is that the buttons will help participants identify each other and help them start making connections.
"I really think people's appreciation of a work of literature and poetry is deepened by discussion with other people," Pearl said.
Although other writers - including John Irving, Anne Tyler and Margaret Atwood - were considered for the project, Banks was the first choice.
"He's an author who's good at talking to people about his books and about writing," Pearl said. And Banks, unlike some of the other contenders, also hasn't made many appearances in Seattle.
"When he heard what we were up to, I think he was a bit taken aback by the idea of an entire city reading his book," Pearl said.
"The Sweet Hereafter," which explores the way a community comes together and comes apart, was a logical book pick, Pearl said.
"It also deals with the unthinkable, the loss of a child, and the reactions of the townspeople force you to consider what you'd do," she said.
Last year, the center received a $180,000 grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund to carry out its plan to turn the city into one big book group.
The project is funded for two more years. Readers who like to plan ahead - and there are always a few in every book group - take note: Next year's pick will be a work of literary nonfiction, and, in the final year, all of Seattle will be reading a book of poetry.
To borrow copies of "The Sweet Hereafter," call The Washington Center for the Book at 206-386-4650 or 206-386-4184. Some local independent booksellers promoting the event are also selling discounted copies to book groups.
For more information on the project, call the center or check out its Web site at http://www.spl.org/wacentbook/seattleread/samebook.html. Here's a list of coming events, all free to the public:
Tomorrow: At 7 p.m. in Lee Auditorium at the Seattle Downtown Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., there will be a free screening of "The Sweet Hereafter," the 1997 movie based on the Russell Banks novel.
Nov. 9-Dec. 1: KUOW-FM (94.9) will broadcast a reading of "The Sweet Hereafter" on "Radio Reader." The program airs 9:30-10 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Dec. 2: At 9 a.m., Nancy Pearl will host a live, hour-long "Book Club of the Air" with Russell Banks. The call-in show will be broadcast on KUOW.
At 7 p.m. , Russell Banks will read and discuss his novel at the First United Methodist Church, 811 Fifth Ave. in downtown Seattle.
Dec. 3: Banks will meet with readers and book groups at Seattle's Downtown Library and at two Seattle neighborhood libraries. At noon, he will be at the Downtown Library's Lee Auditorium, 1000 Fourth Ave.; at 3 p.m. he will be at the Green Lake Library, 7364 E. Green Lake Drive N.; and at 7 p.m. he will be at the Columbia Library, 4721 Rainier Ave. S.