The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Beating the Drum for Literature

May 11, 2007
Petoskey, Michigan

Just when I think the Big Reads I'm seeing can't be improved on, I read about one that sounds even better. The link isn't up anymore, but you should have seen the picture and accompanying article that ran in the Petoskey News-Review on April 17, 2007. That's Petoskey, Michigan, for those of you without an encyclopedic knowledge of American cities blessed with more than one post office. And just because I can't get there in person is no reason for this blog to ignore what sounds like Petoskey's absolutely corking Big Read of To Kill a Mockingbird.

I especially like the way tribal chairman Frank Ettawageshik's quote -- reading is "very much akin to climbing in someone else's skin" -- echoes Harper Lee herself. Once read, the book hasn't just taken up residence on his bookshelf. No, the very language of the novel has lodged itself in Frank's vocabulary, reaffirming, of course, Atticus' deathless line, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view--until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

Ettawageshik leads the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, the only Big Read in the country so far sponsored by an Indian tribe. Public libraries tend to rank first among equals in most Big Read applications, and that's perhaps as it should be. Libraries are where the books are, and heaven knows where the program would be without the lavish support of the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

But whenever we get an application where the library is a partner but the principal is somebody else -- a university, a museum, a radio or TV station -- that's a treat, too. It reminds us around the office that literature isn't just for the professionals. As Rodney Dangerfield says in Back to School, breaking out his checkbook at the student store as if the drinks are on him: "Shakespeare for everybody!" Would a library make the connection that Frank Ettawageshik does between the Jim Crow laws of Depression Alabama and the "No Indians" signs he remembers from his Michigan childhood? A good one, probably. But I'm glad Frank was around to make sure.

I also love the way the Little Traverse Bay Bands have spent some of their Big Read grant to commission an original composition, based on the book, for the Great Lakes Chamber Orchestra to premiere. With so many cities and towns picking Mockingbird for their first Big Read, I'm guessing this is one world premiere that may actually notch that all-important second performance before too long.

So many small-town orchestras have to play it safe in their programming just to stay afloat, just like so many small newspapers only go through the motions of covering any kind of cultural news. It would have been great to meet them in person, but my consolations are knowing that the Big Read is giving the composer James Grant a chance to write for orchestra, and that reporter-photographer Kristina Hughes is getting the opportunity to show what she can do. All that, plus seeing that picture of not just one, but two generations of the Martell family beating their tribal drum at a Big Read event. Kind of makes you wonder if there's a tomtom duet anywhere in James Grant's score...