The Big Read Blog (Archive)

If books are not good company, where will I find it?

February 8, 2007
Hartford, Connecticut

"If books are not good company, where will I find it?"
-- Mark Twain, in a letter to M. Fairbanks

"I am reading Zora!"
-- lapel buttons visible on coats all over Hartford, Connecticut

The first person to email the blog and tell me who "M. Fairbanks" was will win official bragging rights from the NEA. (Cash value negligible, alas.) Me, I had the still-fresh pleasure of re-reading some Zora Neale Hurston myself Wednesday, in the course of visiting a Big Read masterminded by the all-but-rebuilt Hartford Public Library, and abetted by partners around town including the built-to-last Mark Twain House and Museum.

In between meeting the Library's sainted deputy chief librarian, Jenny Benedict, at 8:45 yesterday morning -- she with the unenviable chore of chaperoning me around the Connecticut capital all day -- and getting a magical nighttime tour of the Twain house last night from its abundantly knowledgeable director, Debra Petke, I didn't exactly sit around in mukluks eating bonbons. First came an interview with Connecticut Public Television's Ray Hardman (who promised in full view of his TV audience to read Their Eyes Were Watching God!), then storytime at the Sand branch library, with kids eating ambrosia while hearing the folktales Hurston recorded around the South for the WPA and the Library of Congress.

We came back to the main branch for lunch with city librarian Louise Blalock and enough partners to make readers out of all of Greater Hartford and half the Connecticut River watershed besides. Next it was Zora Hour, for which two intrepid librarians played the Big Read CD and led a discussion of the book with an attentive audience of library regulars, complete with juice and snacks. A guy named Winston, warm in a heavy parka, allowed as how Hurston so far was no Kahlil Gibran, but he was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Then off to the library?s Albany branch, where staffer Michelle McFarland confided that Ruby Dee's audio book of Hurston was making converts right and left for this brilliant but challengingly dialect-heavy novel. After dinner it was over to Twain's place for a lecture and reading by sore-throated but singular-voiced young novelist Tayari Jones. And finally, a late-night tour with Debra, Jenny and my gracious cousin/host Clare up towhat's really the delivery room of the American novel: Mark Twain's third-floor, triple-balconied, billiard-table-equipped writing study. ?If books are not good company, where will I find it??-- in Hartford, for a start. More down the Big Road. . .