The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Orienteering in Minneapolis

June 28 , 2007
Washington, DC

There I was down the road from the Mall of America, trying to shut it down. I was in a hotel ballroom, with all the green cantaloupe and hideous overbright chandeliers and stackable underpadded chairs that such a place entails, surrounded by the most unfailingly dedicated people I think I've ever met. They're this fall's Big Read organizers, representatives of the 117 cities and towns reading one of our dozen books between September and December. My only regret is that I didn't have the time to compare notes with every last one of them, a dereliction I hope to redress during my barnstorming, stemwinding transcontinental road trip this fall.

Big Read organizers representing 117 cities and towns at the June orientation in Minneapolis. Photo by David Kipen

There were far too many great, larceny-worthy ideas in the air to play favorites by mentioning only a couple -- at least until a later, fuller post. Suffice for now to say that if the whole country were one enormous Big Read megacity, the kickoff event would be one grape-stomping, falcon-swooping, geomantic, dipsomaniacal good time. After a while, all the books started to merge and blur on me. The Age of Wrath? The Maltese Mockingbird? Bless Me, Antonia?

The whole orientation felt a world away from our office, next to the other Mall of America. I work on the 7th floor of the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue, right next to the National Mall, sometimes called America's front yard. These have become the opposing poles of American life: the Mall of America and the National Mall, the shopping center and the front yard, consumerism and neighborhood.

And yet, consumerism doesn't stack up as the enemy: As always, the enemy is incuriosity. If anybody's going to bring the forces represented by the Mall of America and the National Mall together, my money's on the 300 librarians, educators and impresarios in Minneapolis this week.

The trick is to co-opt the forces of commerce -- and computers, and movies, and broadcasting, and all the other suspects so often framed for America's reading decline -- and use them in the service of reading, instead of against it. There's nothing wrong with the electronic media, so long as people keep talking back to their screens. The active, engaged neighbors that reading literature creates, don't need to be told this. They're the ones who descended on Minneapolis to get a better handle on how to transform their cities and towns through the power of attentive reading. That's not bookishness; that's the very essence of activism.

It just occurred to me that in Minnesota, we weren't too far from the headwaters of the mightiest river in America, the one that inspired America's first great novelist. I hope it's not overreaching to think that today we're at the source of something, too -- as our communications ace Paulette Beete said, something ginormous. And when, as we devoutly hope, a generation from now, more Americans are reading, becoming better citizens, better neighbors -- when the Mall of America is a ghost town, with tumbleweeds blowing through its food courts and crickets chirping above the Muzak -- hardly anybody's going to know that it all started in the Grand Ballroom of the Minneapolis Holiday Inn...