The Big Read Blog (Archive)

A First Steppe

November 1, 2007
Washington, DC

After the Russian Big Read delegation visited America last spring, most of us felt optimistic, but not quite confident. These officials from Ivanovo and Saratov seemed to get the idea of inducing a whole city to enjoy the same book for a month or so, but -- amid the handicaps of jet lag, culture shock and simultaneous translation -- we weren't about to count any mockingbirds before they hatched. What if the Russians thought we were practicing cultural imperialism instead of cultural diplomacy, trying to shove yet more American pop culture down their throats? And what if a week of American-sized portions at D.C. restaurants had short-circuited their ability to take in all we were throwing at them?One week in Russia, a couple of inspiring school visits, three splashy kick-offs in two cities and beats me how many vodka toasts later, I shouldn't have worried. My visits to New York and Massachusetts next week should only be so good. Forget the red-carpet treatment, the police escorts, the state dinner for international partnerships director Pennie Ojeda, Chairman Gioia, and me. All that was swell -- the kind of thing that doesn't faze the Chairman any more, but always has me checking compulsively to see if my fly is open.

No, what really wowed me was the kids.

Our first stop in Ivanovo was the local children's library. Apparently, in Russia you go to a special library just for kids until you're 14, at which point they'll risk turning you loose in the grown-ups' libe across town. I'll admit this ageism goes against my grain a tad. I was always the kid reading The Andromeda Strain instead of The Wind in the Willows, and -- even less forgivably -- congratulating myself for it. But if separate libraries are all it takes to turn out kids as gregarious and inquisitive as the ones in Ivanovo, I'll card the little ones myself.

Teen after teen stood up and got straight to the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird (newly retranslated and reissued by the Russian publisher Vagrius). A girl in back asked if the second-class citizenship that the black townspeople endured in the book was so different from what the Chechens are going through nowadays. A local law student invited for the occasion spoke movingly of the prejudice he still suffers as the son of a Tatar. And a teenage guy -- a guy! -- talked about the universality of a good book, and allowed as how "Writers have no nationality." All the time I was thinking, Would somebody please pinch me? It's not as if, by the midpoint of a five-meal-a-day trip, there wasn't plenty of flab for the tweaking...