One Book, One Philadelphia’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’

Citywide special

It was disappointing that the author of the book selected for One Book, One Philadelphia this year did not even care enough to send a greeting via video. Nonetheless, the program’s tireless coordinator, Kalela Williams, lured some well-known authors to its opening night.

Neil Rao plays Nick DiBerardino's 'Homunculus.' (Photo by Margaret Darby)

The book, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is a tour-de-force narrative written without expressions of empathy, irony, or colloquialisms from the protagonist, a boy with Asperger’s syndrome. I whipped through the book in an afternoon and encourage you to read it and have your children read it, too. A precocious ten-year-old could handle the very vivid story, which includes lots of description of special-education classes from a child’s point of view.

An inspiring panel

The opening event of One Book, One Philadelphia was also an exercise in political unity and will. From donor Marie Field’s ironic comments about Mark Haddon appearing virtually in a television clip to her concluding question -- “What is reality, anyway?” -- the mood was set for lively discussion.

On the panel were five former One Book, One Philadelphia authors: Lorene Carey (The Price of a Child, 2003), James McBride (The Color of Water, 2004), Carlos Eire (Waiting for Snow in Havana, 2007), Steve Lopez (The Soloist, 2009), and Christina Baker Kline (Orphan Train, 2015). Tamala Edwards of Channel Six ABC was a gracious and able facilitator and host. She started by asking the panel members about their writing processes. Lorene Carey and Christina Baker Kline remarked that programs like One Book, One Philadelphia give writers a new perspective, both from audience feedback and from the experience of reading their work aloud.

The discussion quickly veered toward mobilizing people into political action with the memorable words of James McBride. The Color of Water, an intensely personal book, was several books ago for him; he is now concerned with coming together as a political body. “What we really need to do, particularly in Philadelphia,” he said, “is to organize.” He referred to the audience and to Mr. and Mrs. Field, sponsors of One Book, One Philadelphia, and raised his arms to indicate the public library, explaining, “These are the foot soldiers.”  Lorene Carey reminded the audience that Writers Resist is also a vector for organizing, and the discussion turned to the ways artists can be activists.

Mind music

The program was capped off with a performance of Homunculus, a percussion piece inspired by the book, written by Curtis Institute of Music composer Nick DiBerardino. DiBernardino told the audience about his fascination with the cortical homunculus, which is where the brain holds a physical representation, or neurological map, of the body. Neil Rao performed the piece using drums, cowbells, harmonica, two legs, two feet, and two arms, creating the effect on the audience that simultaneous sound stimuli would have on someone like Christopher, the protagonist of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, when he is in a noisy, crowded, sensorially overwhelming situation. 

This was the first event in an eight-week series being held throughout the Philadelphia region, including in Camden, New Jersey. The program includes lectures by experts on autism spectrum disorder, prime numbers, performances, films, and sensory-friendly events, but you will find yourself engaging in discussions that continue out of the lecture hall and carry on at the bus stop.

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