March 21, 2008
Lately, politicians and pundits agree that America seems reluctant to talk about racism in any but the most sensationalistic terms. They're not wrong, either. Quietly though, one city and town at a time, a nationwide program called The Big Read is starting to help Americans kick around subjects like race -- and class, and free speech, and immigration, and any number of other topics that good neighbors usually make a habit of avoiding.
Nobody expected this civic side benefit when my colleagues at the National Endowment for the Arts and I went about hatching The Big Read. All we wanted was to arrest the mortifying erosion in American pleasure reading that, like a rush-hour mudslide, can narrow the road toward a humane, prosperous society down to one elite lane.
Cynthia Ozick. Photo
But sometimes, instead of working against us, the law of unintended consequences is actually on our side. In the course of helping cities do successful one-city one-book programs, I'm discovering a nationwide hunger to talk about the very subjects that tend to make us nervous. Traveling around the country watching The Big Read work, I've noticed a real impatience with "polite conversation," with having to choose one's words so carefully that any hope of a natural give-and-take gets lost.
Take Wallowa County, Oregon, where a literary center called Fishtrap won a modest grant to do a Big Read of The Grapes of Wrath. It might have been easy to treat the book like a period piece, showing the movie, hosting book discussions, having teenagers record oral histories of senior citizens who remember the Depression firsthand -- all of which Fishtrap did, and did well. But they also devised a "hard-luck dinner," where ticket-buyers didn't know ahead of time whether they'd get steak, hardtack, or go hungry. That led to the kind of frank discussion that might be awkward in a checkout line, but somehow crops up spontaneously whenever a great book comes to hand.
Then there's Lewiston, Maine, where the nationally ranked Bates debating team took up the question "Should communities have the right to ban books from school libraries?" in a public forum on Fahrenheit 451. Or Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, where a keynote address on To Kill a Mockingbird and racial equality moved the city editor of the local paper to face up to her family's slave-owning past. Or consider Waukee, Iowa, which chose arguably the most challenging book on our list, Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl , and has turned it into a citywide consideration of the Holocaust.
In Los Angeles, the County Library will celebrate Rudolfo Anaya's novel Bless Me, Ultima with -- among dozens of other events this spring -- "A Bulldozed Barrio: Recalling Chavez Ravine." It's a presentation by those inquisitive, award-winning mavens of The Baseball Reliquary, so don't expect any checked swings about how the Dodgers wound up on land once promised for affordable housing.
Don't get me wrong. The Big Read won't solve America's reading woes single-handedly, and a few candid discussions with our neighbors about issues we usually duck isn't going to turn any American city into Periclean Athens overnight. (Even Athens lied to itself about slavery.) But anything that helps not only defrost the usual glacial pace of racial reconciliation around America, but also defuse artist-rancher misunderstanding in Marfa, Texas, and Russian immigrant tensions among the Mennonites in Ephrata, Pennsylvania -- where they're reading Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich -- is at least worth the candle.
How does the simple act of reading a good book and hashing it out with the person next to you break the ice for more and, just as important, less serious conversations? The NEA could conduct ten times as many surveys and evaluations as we're already doing of The Big Read, and still never get to the bottom of that one.
My best guess is that reading is, sappy as it sounds, like falling in love: It works us over when we're not looking. It unlocks us. We forget ourselves, and wake to find we're talking more freely, laughing louder. We're quicker to cry, and we blush brighter than we ever used to. To paraphrase the last line of the book that first hooked me --Jim Bouton's Ball Four -- you spend your time cracking open a book, and "in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."