Talking books with Emily Ellis

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Emily Ellis hadn’t worked for the Knox County Library for more than a couple of months when she came up with the notion of having a monthly brown-bag book discussion. She chose environmental sustainability as her topic and dubbed the event “Brown Bag, Green Book.”


The first speaker in the series was Mike Edwards, former president and CEO of the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce. He chose “Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America” by Thomas Friedman.

The following month’s speaker was architect Beth Eason, who reviewed “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things,” co-authored by U.S. architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart, an examination of ways to eliminate the concept of waste.

Ellis, who is a reference librarian, worked hard on finding speakers who would provide interesting, provocative subject matter, and subsequent speakers reviewed books on mountaintop-removal coal mining and the environmental disaster and reclamation of the Ducktown Basin. Former schools superintendent James McIntyre reviewed a book called “Last Child in the Woods,” about saving children from “Nature Deficit Disorder.”

By 2015, Ellis started wanting to explore additional issues and decided to broaden the range of topics. “Brown Bag, Green Book” went out with a bang with Duncan Maysilles, author of “Ducktown Smoke: The Fight Over One of the South’s Greatest Environmental Disasters.”

“Books Sandwiched In” made its debut with attorney Wanda Sobieski, who reviewed “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power” by Jimmy Carter.

The monthly book discussion has become one of the library’s most popular events, drawing audiences from 25 to more than 100 people to hear an eclectic mix of academics and elected officials, authors and enthusiasts talk about their favorite books.

One of the biggest crowds showed up to hear Sam Venable discuss “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance’s best-selling tale of escaping a hardscrabble life in rural Kentucky (even though he grew up in Ohio). Vance’s book quickly became a talking point used in explaining the 2016 elections, which prompted historian Elizabeth Catte to write “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia,” a slender volume that sought to debunk Vance’s premise. Ellis scheduled Catte for a rare evening session, which drew a huge crowd.

Ellis is looking forward to the next book talk on Wednesday, May 22, when attorney Julie Gautreau will discuss “American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment” by Shane Bauer, an investigative reporter who took a job as a guard at a for-profit prison in Louisiana. “Books Sandwiched In” meets at noon at the East Tennessee History Center, 601 S. Gay St.

“When we announced that one,” she said, “people went, ‘Ahhhhh.’”

Ellis grew up in Tuscaloosa Ala., where her father, Norman Ellis, was a psychology professor at the University of Alabama. Her mother, Kay, went back to college and got a library degree after her five children were older, and instilled in them a love of books.

Ellis got an undergraduate degree in French at the University of Alabama and spent just enough time teaching high school to decide that she wanted to do something else, so she went back to school and got a master’s in counseling. After a year of counseling in Middle Tennessee, she decided she wasn’t really suited for that, either, and took a job in the registrar’s office at the University of Tennessee.

She worked at UT for 15 years, and started taking information science classes, one class at a time, and figured out that this was what she really wanted to do. So she took a year off, went to school full-time, got a second master’s degree and went to work for the Knox County Public Library as a reference librarian.

Ellis lives in Oakwood Lincoln Park and is an active member of the Oakwood Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association. She is also the editor of the Tennes-Sierran, the Tennessee Sierra Club’s print newsletter.

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