By Donald Wittkowski
Rita Mae Brown, social activist and bestselling author of more than 50 books, believes that even ordinary people can become “elite” simply by doing one thing – reading.
In wide-ranging and occasionally humorous remarks that touched on politics, the media, popular culture and gay rights, Brown urged a roomful of her fans Thursday night to emulate some of the world’s most accomplished leaders by picking up a good book.
She noted that Nelson Mandela and the Founding Fathers, for instance, all were avid readers whose love of classic books shaped their political beliefs and the vision they had for their countries.
“Their reading is your political roadmap,” she told the audience during an appearance at the Ocean City Free Public Library.
Brown characterized readers as the “elites” of the world who, even in their own modest way, have the power to influence their communities or entire countries.
“No nation can survive without the elite. You’re an elite,” she said, prompting smiles and nods of agreement from some members of the audience. “Some readers become doers.”
Brown said Ocean City’s modern library is an example of how a community has come to embrace education and the love of reading.
“I’m thrilled with this library. It is extraordinary,” she said.
She added, “This is available to every citizen of Ocean City, as is every library in the world.”
Brown is the author of numerous mystery novels, including the New York Times-bestselling “Mrs. Murphy” series, which she writes with her feline co-author, Sneaky Pie Brown, and the “Sister Jane” fox-hunting novels.
In addition to her status as a bestselling author, she has built a reputation as a prominent social activist and pioneer of gay rights. She first gained acclaim with her 1973 debut novel, “Rubyfruit Jungle,” a coming-of-age autobiographical account of her youth and emergence as a lesbian author.
Brown is a recipient of the Lambda Literary Pioneer Award for people who have broken new ground in the field of LGBT literature and publishing.
During her remarks Thursday, the 73-year-old Brown spoke of the difficulties of being a gay-rights activist long before the country became more accepting of LGBT culture, noting that she was harassed and even beaten up for her views.
“You should be able to say whatever you like,” she said, referring to the constitutional protection of free speech.
Taking a swipe at Washington’s rancorous politics, she encouraged the audience to reject what she called the “corrupt” two-party system.
She also blasted the news media, saying that it had “aided and abetted” Washington’s political establishment by exploiting the fears of the American public.
Brown, though, repeatedly expressed her love for the country and her fellow Americans.
“We are a good and generous people, and we need to get back to work,” she said.
Mixing philosophy with social activism, she appealed to the audience on a deeply personal level with a call to action.
“The most revolutionary thing you can do is to be yourself,” she said.
Those words resonated with one of Brown’s fans, Kim Koernig, a teacher at Cedar Creek High School in Egg Harbor City.
Koernig, 26, a resident of Ocean City, repeated Brown’s “revolutionary” quote verbatim while describing how much Brown has inspired her. She also said Brown has rejuvenated her hope of becoming a writer.
Koernig was among about 50 people in the audience for Brown’s remarks. Later, Brown signed copies of her books for Koernig and other fans.
“It’s pretty cool. This is my first book signing,” said Koernig, who had Brown autograph a copy of “Rubyfruit Jungle.”
“Rubyfruit Jungle” was the first Rita Mae Brown novel ever read by Diana Pizzuto, another one of Brown’s fans who showed up for her appearance in Ocean City.
Pizzuto, 64, a Somers Point resident who works as a casino dealer in Atlantic City, said Brown has a compelling writing style that “keeps you interested.”
After Brown was done speaking, Pizzuto called her “a true American.”
Pizzuto said she was particularly impressed with Brown’s wide range of topics, praising her for not using her remarks as a platform to simply promote her books.
“She’s broad. She wasn’t stuck on her product,” Pizzuto said. “She has a love for our America.”