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These UNC students combined reading and community service for A Novel Idea

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Noah Spargo, a resident of Gastonia, N.C., relaxes in his hammock at home as he reads stories from Greek mythology on Thursday, March. 19, 2020.  Spargo, who spends much of his free time absorbed in books, is a proponent of A Novel Idea's mission of encouraging a lifelong love of reading in children.

Lauren Ragsdale and Lauren Westbrook saw a need for a club on campus that encouraged recreational reading in a group setting, leading them to co-found A Novel Idea. 

“We wanted to start a club where we could all read together, try different books and also encourage the habit of reading during school,” Ragsdale said.

Almost a year later, the two have seen their club evolve into more than they initially expected.

Ragsdale said the mission of A Novel Idea is to encourage and foster the love of reading for students, not only during their college experience, but through the rest of their life.

“As we’re college students learning how to live on our own and function on our own, it's really important to make these habits now,” Ragsdale said. “Our habits now will probably stick with us for a very long time in our adult life.”

The club meets once a month to discuss their readings.

“We read almost every genre, we really try to expand everyone's reading list and try to read from different perspectives,” Ragsdale said.

The club also participates in community service with Book Harvest in Durham, which offers free books to underprivileged kids in Orange County and Durham County. The club assists with book drives and shelving at the Durham location, where kids can pick out books ranging from novels to picture books, Ragsdale said. 

They began participating in service when people reached out to them, asking if their club offered an opportunity to give back to the community, she said. 

“I have a love for service and a love for books and I wanted to combine the two with a service-based book club and bring it to Carolina’s campus,” Westbrook said.

Students from all majors are welcome to join the club and can choose to be a part of the readings, service or both.

Westbrook said her and her co-president have found friends they never expected to meet in different areas of campus.

“It’s a great group that’s bonded over books,” Westbrook said. “We have similar interests yet all come from diverse backgrounds so it’s great to see these people come together."

Helen Cushman is the faculty adviser for A Novel Idea. Cushman is an assistant professor in the department of English and Comparative Literature.

“I think reading is just such a wonderful way for people to exercise their minds. It’s something that people can do for their entire lives,” Cushman said.

Cushman said the co-founders reached out to her over the summer.

“One of the things that has been really wonderful in watching what the 'Laurens' have been doing with this book club is how they've made recreational reading into a communal activity,” Cushman said. “It’s something that people can come together and do.”

Cushman said the club encourages people to buy books from local bookstores rather than major websites, such as Amazon. She said they want to make people aware they have options when it comes to purchasing their books.

“It’s very important for people to be able to access books regardless of their circumstances,” Cushman said. “They’ve been doing a lot of work to support local bookstores and book drives.”

Cushman used terms from Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" — sentence and solaas — to describe the co-founders' ability to read for two purposes. She described sentences as the moral messages readers are supposed to take away from a story and solaas as the pleasure or delight in reading.

“In the classroom, my tendency is to lean pretty heavily on the sentence — what it is you can learn and take away and extract from the story,” Cushman said. “But when you encounter stories or books in a slightly less academic context, it can be a really powerful reminder of the sensuality of solaas too, and how that can be a really important force in the world.”

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