The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Oscar Wilde Is Just The Bomb

April 4, 2007
Kansas City, Kansas

Please let me get this down before I forget too much of it. I just flew into Kansas City, Missouri, and rented a car from Janna at the Alamo counter, who noticed my Post-It-festooned Grapes of Wrath paperback and proceeded to fill me in on her classics-loving daughter and equally book-mad son -- 400 Louis L'Amour paperbacks last year, Flags of Our Fathers just this week. I was still incognito when she said, "A book is the best gift you can give a kid," but that's not even the best part.

No, then I followed Molly's Yahoo directions to my seemingly antiseptic airport hotel, and who should I find behind the reception desk but Kessa, looking up attentively from the pages of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Was she liking it?

Oh yes -- even more than Juneteenth! Turns out she reads furtively on the job, and reads to her 11-year-old son when he still lets her. Then her co-worker looked up from down the counter and whispers, "I'm reading the best book, too: The Picture of Dorian Gray!"

"Wilde?" Kessa answers. "Oh, Oscar Wilde is just the bomb!"

By this point in the conversation -- just to keep up -- I figured I'd better identify myself as program director of the Big Read, whose kickoff celebration across the river in Kansas City, Kansas, I should've left for, eesh, 10 minutes ago. Here's when Kessa looks me right in the eye and asks, "Well, what would it take to get something like the Big Read over here on the Missouri side?"

Collapsing on the floor in gratitude and, in Dashiell Hammett's great phrase, making "more of a puddle than a pile there," I recovered my composure long enough to fork over a business card and point her to http://www.neabigread.org. But all day long, I kept thinking about Kessa's epidemic predicament: how to read at work when company policy discourages it.

High school students with two adults in a group shot behind a table inside the theater

Jessie, Emannuel and the other guys of Kansas City AYS, promising to read The Grapes of Wrath.

I thought about this at the kickoff event in Kansas City's Memorial Hall an hour later, listening to Congressman Dennis Moore sing most of the verses from Woody Guthrie's ?This Land is Your Land? in a strong tenor. I thought about it palling around afterward with the kids from the AYS continuation school around the corner, and touring KCK's steadily refurbishing library afterward, and admiring Minnesota Avenue's lovingly restored Granada Theatre.

I'm still thinking about it now, the next morning: What can be done to show employers that reading at work -- so long as customers aren't waiting and heavy machinery isn't involved -- actually improves job performance? Certainly I enjoyed checking into my hotel far more with an engaged, literate desk clerk than I would have otherwise. Certainly CEOs complain enough about all the money they spend on remedial reading programs for some of their workers. What if companies started experimenting with the occasional Leave Your Daughter at Home and Bring a Book to Work Instead Day?

I know, I know, one transformative nationwide reading program at a time...