The Big Read Blog (Archive)

A Mistake I Won’t Make Again

February 16, 2007
Starkville, Mississippi

"When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but a vague spot a little east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks in Brentano's are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf."
-- John Updike, The Paris Review Book of Heartbreak, Madness, Sex, Love, Betrayal, Outsiders, Intoxication, War, Whimsy, Horrors, God, Death, Dinner, Baseball, Travels, the Art of Writing, and Everything Else in the World Since 1953

I messed up last night. Lord knows it wasn't the fault of anybody else in Starkville, Mississippi. Big Read organizer Nancy Jacobs picked me up on time at the airport, a trunkful of copies of To Kill a Mockingbird bound for the local continuation school in her car and a thick stack of Big Read clippings in her hand. The Starkville Public Library welcomed me with groaning potluck tables and more than a hundred friendly faces, and the children's librarian helped me lay my hands on a copy of the WPA Guide to the Magnolia State in ample time for my talk. Nancy introduced me to Mayor Dan Camp, a dedicated new urbanist elected to keep the rebuilt stationhouse downtown; to Skip Descant of the Commercial Dispatch, scribbling like mad after asking a timely question about the future of libraries; and to a 97-year-old woman not yet resigned to making her age the icebreaker in every conversation. But the most important person in the room, I never talked to.

He was a teenage boy, under 15 from the look of him, but tall. His eyes were large and inquisitive. I didn't see anybody talk to him, nor him to anybody else. He appears nowhere in all the sharp photos Harry Freeman obligingly shot of the great young local band, Nash Street, that opened for me, nor of the well-coiffed, mostly gray or white heads craned toward the podium later on.

What kind of teenager shows up at the public library on a Thursday night, alone, to hear some arts bureaucrat talk about literature and reading and To Kill a Mockingbird? I'm guessing he's the kid Updike writes about in his Paris Review interview, the "countryish teen-aged boy" we at the NEA are tearing our hair out to reach with the Big Read. He's one of the teenage male cohort in America that cares about books less than ever, whose reading numbers are diving while everybody else's are merely declining, but I was too busy being made much of to care.

Of course, I'm self-importantly overestimating anything I could have said. Probably nothing would have scared him off of reading faster than some visiting federal functionary fawning over him. Later, though, when Harry was showing me the lovely note Harper Lee had sent declining an invitation to speak, I wished I could have shown it to the kid, but he left early.