Homecoming: Salinas Reads The Grapes of Wrath (Salinas, CA)

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Three modern dancers, two men in front with arms back holding the femaile dancer who is arching back. The dancers are in front of a backdrop image of a cultivated field<br />

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

The Big Read is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading to the center of American culture. The NEA presents the Big Read in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and in cooperation with Arts Midwest. Nearly 200 communities nationwide will participate in the Big Read for 2007.

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. NSC's Big Read took place February 24-March 31, 2007. 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 initiative.

NEA: Why did the National Steinbeck Center (NSC) want to participate in the Big Read?

ABBY PFEIFFER: Well, obviously, The Grapes of Wrath swayed us in that direction. We, as an institution, had not ever taken on a one book, one community initiative, and so that 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: What was the scope of NSC's Big Read?

PFEIFFER: We had 44 events. What we ended up doing is pulling our marketing person and our grant writer onto the project, a third to half time for a couple of months. So this whole organization jumped in with both feet.

LORI WOOD: One thing that made it so large was our decision to extend the campaign throughout Monterey County. Had we concentrated here in the Salinas area, we probably wouldn't have had the same number of events, but we extended our outreach to libraries throughout the whole county, to schools, to extended areas of the county that were beyond the geography of Salinas. 

PFEIFFER: The program gave us reach into more of the Peninsula in Monterey County, which is one of our target areas that we have a hard time reaching.

NEA: Did NSC give out free books as part of the Big Read?

PFEIFFER: We gave away a thousand in English and four hundred in Spanish. That was a big part of our budget, actually.

WOOD: And you know, it was really exciting. First of all, the schools were thrilled to give them out. But we gave (oh boy this is a good one!), we gave them out on Meals on Wheels too. 

NEA: What were some of the events in your Big Read?

WOOD: We had a free day here at the Center that always draws a lot of people from the community, and it draws families. And we had a Steinbeck Alive little theater presentation, just two people who enacted scenes from The Grapes of Wrath. We had more than 200 people that day.

We had panels of teachers at a junior college and at California State University that we brought students to. It gave local students a chance to see a college campus, and to see the most interesting kinds of conversations that can happen.  So we had a panel of people up there -- deans and former deans of the University of California and the State University of Monterey Bay.  We had someone from the library talking about The Grapes of Wrath from a librarian's perspective and someone from the Watershed Institute talking about [the novel] from an environmental perspective.

Students got to see adults really emotional and excited about a book. I know that made an impression on them because [young people] need to see people caring about books. That was part of our grant budget, to provide transportation money to bring people to events, to bring students to events.

NEA: As I've been looking through the event calendars and reading press clips from communities nationwide, one thing I've been really struck by is how many communities are incorporating community service events into their Big Reads. One of the events that first made me take notice was the gleaning in the Monterey County field.

WOOD: We put on our calendar that [the event] was crop and weather permitting, and we had a very unseasonable freeze, and the crop was late. So [the gleaning] wasn't able to happen. We thought that it would really be a tactile experience of what it was like to be a migrant worker, what it was like to come here and work in the fields. So it was important to us and we were very excited about that being part of our program. We hung on until two days before, and then we had to cancel.

NEA: Some time ago, there was some controversy in Salinas involving the possible closure of your local library. In light of that, how important was it to host the Big Read in Salinas?

WOOD: 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 possible in the human mind, and the kinds of skills that might be lost if we give up.

NEA: How important was the Big Read grant and the materials to the success of your program?

WOOD: It was nice to get some money to support our program, but it meant a lot that we could tell everyone, "This is a National Endowment for the Arts grant."  And also for people to know that we were one of [72] communities across the country, because it was able to bring this sense of a groundswell of interest in reading, and that we were all part of something together. The material that the NEA provided was excellent, those readers' guides, and the teachers' guides, and, particularly, also having them in Spanish was really super. If we had done our own community read, I don't think we would have had the resources to produce those guides, and I don't only mean the cost of printing them -- just what it took to get that material together, that was mammoth. 

PFEIFFER: And I think that we were able to excite all of the partners that we collected, partly because it was a National Endowment for the Arts initiative. When we started to call our schools and even our movie theater and book stores and other people that we ended up partnering with and presented what was going to be happening, I think it made a huge difference that it was being promoted by the National Endowment for the Arts.

NEA: Do you do you think you'll do another program, whether or not it's part of the Big Read?

PFEIFFER: We had calls on the Monday after we closed our campaign asking us what the book for the next month would be. People were ready, they got behind it, and they were ready to keep it going.

WOOD: We definitely will do a community read now. We have been talking among ourselves, and actually with the community -- because they're so eager to do the next one -- about how we would go about doing this, whether we would take on one of the other books, choose and do a Steinbeck book every year, or whether we would alternate. But absolutely, this has whet our appetites for community reading.

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 it took off on its own.

WOOD:  I'm going to read you this paragraph [from our brochure]; it was our own vision for this.  "Imagine the experience of a whole community reading a book together. Imagine families turning off their televisions and their cell phones and their iPods, and reading a book together. Imagine people talking about books together in the supermarket checkout line, at the hairdresser's, around the dinner table, at the gym. Imagine people talking about the struggles and suffering and joys of their own families, and bringing these stories out. Imagine a community talking. Imagine books causing a community to talk again, to read again, to thoughtfully consider their own history together." So that's how we conceived this program, and I think that that's what we made happen.

For more about the Big Read please see the new issue of NEA Arts.