The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Say Hey

January 23, 2007
Enterprise, Oregon

For, generally, the writer believes that long after the best road of his day has been supplanted by a straighter and wider one, and long after the highest building has crumbled with time or been blown to bits by air bombs, this book will remain. And the makers of this Guide have faith, too, that their book will survive; in the future, when it no longer fills a current need as a handbook for tourists, it will serve as a reference source well-thumbed by school children and cherished by scholars, as a treasure trove of history, a picture of a period, and as a fadeless film of a civilization? -- T.J. Edmunds, WPA State Supervisor, Oregon: End of the Trail, 1940

ENTERPRISE, OR -- Ah, Wallowa County, where the snow-capped vistas (and the epigraphs, apparently) never quit. Good morning and "Hey," as my NEA station chief Molly bids me say to all the Big Read coordinators, like Elizabeth Oliver here in Oregon, who make my visits so far such a pleasure. (Maybe "Hey" is related to "Say hey," which her fellow Alabaman Willie Mays once made famous.)

Alas, no regional idioms catalogued here in Enterprise yet. Just new friends, old pleasures and one pervasive problem, which I've never seen better illustrated than yesterday morning in AP English class at Enterprise High. The students themselves were smart, funny, and to all appearances really digging The Grapes of Wrath. There were only nine of them, which was a pity, but that wasn't the problem. No, the real shame was the ratio of girls to boys: try nine to zero, which pencils out to approximately infinity.

A display of novels by John Steinbeck and Big Read reader's guides for The Grapes of Wrath at the Wallowa Library.

This, alas, is the dirty secret of America 's reading statistics. Bad as the general picture is, as enumerated in the NEA's Reading at Risk report and other places, for teenage boys the stats look even worse. That's one reason, aside from their unimpeachable literary merit, that Fahrenheit 451 and The Maltese Falcon belong on the Big Read's list of books for cities and towns to choose from. The American novel has a proud history of terrific genre fiction, and we may need the very best of it -- mysteries, science fiction, I hope a sports novel before long -- to reach young guys. That, and maybe the news that there's a 9-to-1 boy-girl ratio awaiting the first guy who gets into AP English.

The anecdotal evidence was considerably more encouraging at Warren Johnson's new Second Harvest bookstore in Joseph, Oregon, yesterday. That's where I was busy buying a paperback of Lewis & Clark's journals and sniffing around for Alvin Josephy first editions when a man walks in and -- I swear to this on my oath as a public servant -- asks, "Do you have a copy of The Grapes of Wrath?" Turns out it was one Dick Burch, a Wallowa County resident for eight years and, consequently, almost off probation as far as the locals are concerned.

Several hours later (and altogether too many book purchases among friends at Enterprise's Bookloft and Soroptimists' Club thrift shop the richer), I fetched up back at Fishtrap for a double feature of two classic Depression-era WPA documentaries: The Plow That Broke the Plains, and The Columbia. The ground floor of Fishtrap's lovingly converted Coffin House bloomed with the smells of Don Green's rarebit-like Turkish phyllo pastry as fifty-plus townsfolk, including several making their maiden appearances at the place, jostled for chairs and simulated attention to a visiting bureaucrat's stemwinder. For all their day and a half's bountiful good humor and hospitality, which I have to forsake tonight for tomorrow's early flight out, I'll just whisper one last wistful "Hey." More down the big road?