The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Big Read Russia

October 26, 2007
Ivanovo, Russia

Taking a Russian trip is like reading a Russian word: You won't know whether you really understand it till near the end. In the meantime, a whirlwind of impressions loom out at me from yesterday's Muscovite fog as I write you now from the lobby of the Soyuz hotel in Ivanovo -- a town on the Volga where To Kill a Mockingbird is suddenly all the rage. Moscow in October had to be the only city I've ever been where dawn lasts all day. The misty overcast never burned off but hung around for hours, like a bear who knows you've got a jar of Skippy in your pocket.

This, in sharp contrast to our sunny reception indoors, where Chairman Gioia, the NEA's International Partnerships Director Pennie Ojeda, and I fetched up Wednesday for a freewheeling public conversation at the Library of Foreign Literature's American Center. Busts of Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and others looked on skeptically as the Chairman and I fielded engaged questions about everything from the decline of American reading to who between Harper Lee and Truman Capote probably wrote more of the others' work. (My theory: They wrote their own, but ghostwrote The Prince of Tides in collaboration.)

Several folks in the audience nodded knowingly when I invoked Carson McCullers's old theory about Southern literature as the American Russian novel -- a theory fellow Big Read listmate Ernest J. Gaines implicitly endorsed last month in a conference call with the NEA, speaking feelingly of his love for Turgenev. I'm starting to suspect that America may need the Big Read somewhat more than this impressively literate country does -- or did, before the 50 channels of sensational news and nubile Russian womanhood in my hotel room began arriving. This barrage made our visit to the Library of Foreign Literature all the more welcome. If the Library of Congress is my White House, Russia's American Center is my embassy: a corner of a foreign city that is forever America.

Here in Ivanovo, local dignitaries met us as we entered the city last night with bread, salt, and would you believe an official motorcade? As I told them all in my turn during the several toasts before dinner, I'm more accustomed to a police escort out of a town than into it. The same goes for my family, which got its last look at Russia a hundred years ago, one step ahead of the Cossacks.

What a difference a century makes. I'm looking ahead at a day full of school visits, museum tours, and even more borscht that I've ingested already. Three bowls in just two days! I may be in danger of falling behind on my blog, but I'm surpassing all expectations on my beet intake. Looks like I'll have to let my own borscht belt out a notch.

Taking a Russian trip may be like reading a Russian word, but I'm having a great time sounding it out?