In the fall of 2014, the Ridgefield (CT) Playhouse for the Performing Arts and the Ridgefield Library led a group of community groups in a Big Read of The Great Gatsby. We had organizations from a national historic site (Weir Farm) to the town’s Graveyard Restoration Committee involved, and activities included book discussions, scholarly talks, music, theater and dance performances, historical exhibits, and more. Perhaps the most satisfying response we got to our invitation to participate was from Ridgefield High School. We reached out to them while preparing our application, and chose our title and dates to be in alignment with the school curriculum. The head of the English department was enthusiastic from the start, as The Great Gatsby has long been on the required reading list for the 11th grade, and she and her colleagues were eager to explore some new methods of engaging their students.
Among the activities in the community participated in by students were showings of the 2013 Baz Luhrman film adaptation and a background lecture by Yale dean Mark Schenker. In the school, students read and discussed the book in their English classes and also held a day-long reading out loud of the entire work. But the most inspiring activity was one that literally brought the school and the community together. The Friends of the Library in conjunction with the English department scheduled intergenerational book chats open to adults and young adults, to be led by older students who had already studied the work. Two sessions were held, one at the library and one at the school. Some 30 people participated, with the students really showing their strengths as moderators of mixed-age groups. It was not only a good academic exercise for the students, but also a wonderful opportunity for leadership development.
The school was so pleased with the results that the very next day they were already asking how soon we could do it again! While a full Big Read-style treatment every year is beyond anyone’s staffing and financial capacity, we are at work on developing a smaller version focused on the intergenerational discussions that can be produced each fall. The teachers have sent a list of titles from their curriculum that they think lend themselves particularly to this approach, and the library is researching the availability of authors, speakers, film versions, and the like to supplement the reading for both students and adult participants.
Collaboration between the schools and the library and other community organizations is something that is often more talked about than accomplished, but in Ridgefield, the NEA's Big Read provided a framework that allowed this effort to succeed and to grow into a long-term partnership involving readers of all ages. What a great testament to the mission of the Big Read to “bring communities together to read, discuss and celebrate books” and “to revitalize the role of literary reading in American popular culture.”