The Big Read Blog (Archive)

A Farewell to Arms: Kansas City’s Natural Selection

December 4, 2007
Washington, DC

Sometimes, even if the picture won't win any prizes, the subjects are the story. Snapped here are Big Read partners Jane Wood and Henry Fortunato, flanking a first edition of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Jane presumably brings the same dynamism to chairing the English department at Park University that she's brought to co-organizing a Big Read, while bemused, voluble Henry directs public affairs at the nearby Kansas City Public Library. Darwin, meanwhile, helped start World War I, if you believe a text panel accompanying this display inside Kansas City's new National World War I Museum (one of Jane and Henry's Big Read partners). But more about that later.

It was my privilege to fly into Kansas City two weekends ago for the finale of their salute to A Farewell to Arms. What I saw there capped a series of fine recent Reads, each superlative in its own way. Attleboro, Mass., whose Fahrenheit 451 Read I posted about not long ago, drummed up some of the strongest school participation I've seen yet. Rochester, N.Y. -- not surprisingly, in light of its Kodak history and consequent movie madness -- programmed an ambitious film series around The Maltese Falcon, and created a readable, handy, stylish Big Read calendar that could serve as a model for Big Read cities everywhere. And in White Plains, a SUNY Purchase English professor hosted an absolutely exemplary book discussion, putting aside academic jargon to engage a score of townspeople whose demographics rivaled Pauline Kael's proverbial World War II movie bomber crew for diversity.

Back in Missouri, the celebration of A Farewell to Arms combined sturdy versions of these three Big Read components with a positively unprecedented amount of workplace participation. At least five local corporations distributed books to their employees and invited an especially industrious KCPL librarian to lead office discussions. Kansas City Star arts columnist and book critic Steve Paul, who had already keynoted KC's kickoff event with a talk about Hemingway's year as a cub reporter at his newspaper, moderated a reputedly overflow office book group at the international headquarters of Hallmark. (If you see a spate of Hemingwayesque greetings cards in the coming months, feel free to blame the Big Read.) All these so-called "Corporation Big Reads" must've gone over well, because every last company involved is already clamoring to know which book -- Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl, in particular, came up -- they want to do next year.

On the Origin of Species, as a work of British nonfiction, won't be appearing on the Big Read list anytime soon. But its prominent placement in the WWI Museum raises the question of its alleged role in the runup to the war that wounded Hemingway and so many others. It's an interesting hypothesis, casting a gentle naturalist's case for the theory of natural selection as the trigger for what became, in its time, probably the bloodiest war in human history. All the combatant countries had considered themselves "naturally selected" for greatness, of course, and assumed that in a war of all against all, they'd surely come out on top. None of them was right.

Lincoln once called Harriet Beecher Stowe "the little lady who made this big war." So, did Darwin really help make an even bigger one? Me, I'd hang more of the blame on the British political economist Herbert Spencer. He's the one who perverted "natural selection" into "survival of the fittest" -- a phrase Darwin never used.

But there's another dimension to all this. Kansas has played host to some of the most contested litigation in recent years over the teaching of evolution. By placing Darwin in one of the very first display cases at the World War I Museum, our docent noted that curators were implicitly defending a book often under attack elsewhere in their state.

Then again, they were also blaming a five-year bloodbath on that same treatise. Books are dicey things, and mean different things to different people. To Kansas City, A Farewell to Arms has meant the chance to come together around a single book in their schools, their libraries, their spectacular new museum and, most originally, around the office water cooler. Only light, not blood, was shed. Arguments broke out in book groups all across town, but no gunplay. To my knowledge, no book discussion has ever ended in violence.

Might make a good novel, though. Watch this space.