Salinas Reads The Grapes of Wrath


Spector Dance Studio

SpectorDance Studio presented the dance piece Common Ground, which explores issues in California agriculture from the 1930s to the present, as part of Monterey County Reads The Grapes of Wrath, sponsored by the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. Photo by William Roden

Dedicated to continued exploration of John Steinbeck's work, the National Steinbeck Center (NSC) -- located in the author's birthplace, Salinas, California -- hosted a Big Read of The Grapes of Wrath for Monterey County. Abby Pfeiffer, Manager of Grants and Sponsorship, and Lori Woods, Curator of Education and Public Programs, spoke to the NEA about NSC's experience with the ini- tiative. (Read the full interview on the NEA Web site: www.arts.gov/features/index.html.)

NEA: Why did NSC want to participate in the Big Read?

ABBY PFEIFFER: We, as an institution, had not ever taken on a one book, one community initiative, and so this gave us a chance to use the backing, not only financial, but name and logo backing, of the National Endowment for the Arts to launch this program and let it be our pilot.

NEA: In light of last year's controversy surrounding the possible closure of the Salinas library, how important was the Big Read to the community?

LORI WOODS: I thought that the combination of all the activities that we did, and their reach, and the enormous amount of press we got really brought reading to the forefront in this county for five weeks. Everybody knew that the whole community was reading The Grapes of Wrath, and I think that's particularly important in a community where our libraries were threatened to be shut down. I read [Chairman Gioia's introduction to Reading at Risk] numerous times during introductions to our events, to remind people how important print culture is, what it makes possi- ble in the human mind, and the kinds of skills that might be lost if we give up.

NEA: Is there anything that has particularly surprised you about hosting a Big Read?

PFEIFFER: I don't know if it was a surprise as much as a revelation. . . . What happened around The Grapes of Wrath and the Big Read was that people came together in small groups at libraries and at the events here at the Steinbeck Center. And what was apparent to me was that people need and want a reason to communicate with each other. That's what reading is all about, that you can read and then talk with each other. I know that that was one of the goals of the Big Read, and it was exciting to see that happen. And it truly did happen, [but not] because of anything that we tried to make happen. We just put the book in people's hands and they read it, and they wanted to talk about it, and they came together as a group. And then the Big Read took off on its own.