The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Grapes of Wrath Returns to Oklahoma

April 2, 2007
Norman, Oklahoma

With cityreads, somehow everything just seems to go right the first time: A whole town comes together around the right book. That last-minute substitute speaker turns out to be better than the original would've. Strangers become partners and, stealthily, friends. Blogging from the road works the same way. The first few posts practically write themselves. Every email from a reader is like a message in a bottle to a still-hopeful castaway. In the photos, everybody's eyes are miraculously open and un-Satanic.

But then, before you know it, all that airport food has mysteriously made your laptop 10 pounds heavier. You can't find fresh emails for all the spam. That fancy new camera makes you nostalgic for the point-and-shoot. The WPA state guides get harder and harder to find. And, worst of all, you find yourself blogging about blogging (would you believe metablogging now has 617,000 google citations?), instead of about the absolutely crackerjack Big Read of The Grapes of Wrath that you just saw in Norman, Oklahoma.

My visit started a little ominously, as champion organizer Gary Kramer greeted me at the Pioneer County Library with the words, "We've arranged a brief PowerPoint presentation to show you all we've done." I've given "brief PowerPoint presentations," and most have been neither brief nor presentable. But within two slides I was wishing I'd been in the county all month, instead of just parachuting in for a day.

We broke for lunch at a local establishment called Abner's, where I really wish my photo of a fried avocado had come out better. But the tastiest revelation here was our placemats. In an innovation I'd love to see replicated in as many Big Reads as possible, local organizers have devised a series of six placemats for use in restaurants all over town. Each contains a long passage from the book, and a sophisticated but refreshingly un-academic commentary from OU professor and World Literature Today exec director Robert Con Davis-Undiano. If you want to get people where they live, get 'em where they eat, and that's just what the Pioneer County team has done with these surefire discussion-triggering placemats.

After lunch we adjourned to Norman High School for a performance of Trucking With the Joads, a readers' theater adaptation of the novel condensed to junior-class-assembly length. I was a little apprehensive about this, having fidgeted through some interminable high-school assemblies myself, but this impeccable production won the students over instantly. The only departures from rapt silence came when Mr. Levy, a beloved teacher, salted Woody Guthrie numbers in between scenes to rapturous ovations. I'd introduced the proceedings by relaying my NEA colleagues' good wishes and mentioning that 50 free copies or so of the Steinbeck novel still remained of the 850 that the library had ordered -- and reordered. Sure enough, the first question from an incredulous student after the lights went up was, ?Where do we get those free books again???