The Big Read Blog (Archive)

A Cantonese Big Read

October 12, 2007
Canton, Illinois

There are more or less two kinds of Big Reads. There are the big-city Reads, where partners beat their brains in trying to steal attention from a million overcommitted people. If they can dragoon maybe 15,000 habitual and reluctant readers into picking up a good book off our list, these organizers earn the NEA's undying gratitude.

Then there are the small-town Big Reads, where another gaggle of partners run themselves ragged wooing 15,000 people overall -- and sometimes it seems like they reach every last one. Fulton County's Canton, Illinois, 35 miles outside of Peoria, is just such a burg. Any town where they can get 150 reservations to hear me speak either loves the Big Read like nobody's business, or has me mixed up with somebody else.

A really Big Read. Photo by David Kipen


Yet there they were, tables and tables of them at the Canton Country Club, tucking into some remarkably persuasive Southern cooking in honor of To Kill a Mockingbird. I was overwhelmed and grateful and a little guilty, feeling as if I should've at least sung or danced, or maybe sawed Harper Lee in half. But nobody threw any fried green tomatoes, and I only wished I could've stayed longer.

Luckily, I wasn't the only act on the bill. Carol Davis, Jenny Beal, Carol Blackfelner and their co-organizers did yeo-woman service in lining up the rest of a full bill. Troubadours Patrick Jenkins and Jim Bonnet for some rousing Depression-era musical numbers, a very polished troupe of college actors performed a scene from the theatrical Mockingbird and on the stage a gorgeous 6-foot papier-mache copy of the book, made in the local prison art workshop, dominated the room. Now that's a Big Read.

All this, plus a float in the Fulton County parade, strong school participation, events sponsored by the local 4-H and YMCA, and a radio serialization of the book so popular that one or two pre-emptions resulted in a switchboard jammed with calls from irate Fultonians. If I lived in Canton and hadn't read To Kill a Mockingbird yet, I wouldn't go around admitting it this month.

Someday I'd like to get a Big Read into a real microdot of a town, just a wide spot in the road where all the kids have moved away and it's just 40 or so bitter-enders and a post office -- and then notch 'em all, get 100% participation. It's nothing I'd want to make a habit of, especially as we here grow a tad greedier for that high-hanging metropolitan fruit. But just once, for grins, it'd be nice to land The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, or Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl, on every last ever-loving nightstand in town?