The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Separated at Launch

October 18, 2007
Albuquerque, New Mexico

A quick quiz today, inspired by a revelation I had while driving around Albuquerque the morning after Rudolfo Anaya's standing-room-only, fire-marshal's patience-trying appearance last week. Without thinking, what does this photo remind you of?

The Albuquerque Balloon Festival, taken on a cellphone from a rental car by your faithful roving correspondent

Don't give up yet. Now look at this map, captured from the Big Read's website and aggregating all 117 reads taking place around the country this fall . . .

The Big Read's searchable, sortable Communities page at

Uncanny, no? Same array of teardrop shapes, same seemingly random distribution. Makes me want to commission a Balloon Fest entry next year for every spring '08 Big Read, and fly them in formation to match our geographic spread.

Too much of a logistical headache? Tell that to organizers of the unorthodox Albuquerque Big Read, who know a thing or two about logistics. Greta Pullen and Judith Ann Garcia helped create a tripartite consortium incorporating the National Hispanic Cultural Center, the Albuquerque Public Library, and the literacy office of Bernalillo County. To put this in perspective, bear in mind that most Big Reads consist of one principal sponsor and scores of local partners. Albuquerque wanted a Big Read of Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima so badly that these three outfits couldn't decide who wanted it most.

So they teamed up as equals, and the results I saw were stellar. Rather than hold completely different one-time events around town, they created a recurring variety show of music, theater, art, storytelling and other acts, the better to get at time-crunched readers all over town. Should the gods ever smile on another Big Read application from Albuquerque, these partners are eager to take such a dog-and-pony show into hitherto uncharted Big Read territory. In addition to special events at established venues, they want to crash Rotary lunches, corporate conferences, you name it -- any captive audience of folks who might not be caught dead driving somewhere expressly to attend a reading event, but who'll sit still for one wherever they already are. Once you get them cornered, Rudy Anaya's deathless story does the rest.

The Albuquerque finale was my first chance to attend a Big Read event with the author present, and Anaya proved gracious, self-deprecating, and deeply smart. He's 69 and walks with a cane, in deference to the back pain that's dogged him since a near-fatal teenage diving mishap that inspired his novel Tortuga . But to hear him talk and see him acknowledge the crowd's thanks, he might have been a middle-aged man on the mend from a tennis injury. In front of easily a couple hundred people, Anaya reminisced about most nuevomexicanos' original reaction to Bless Me, Ultima. They kept telling him, ?You just wrote what everybody knows? -- as if that were somehow cheating.

In New Mexico, what everybody knows is that Rudy Anaya made their lives the province of literature for the first time. I saw Carl Yazstremski pinch-hit at Fenway during his last season with the Sox, I attended Randy Newman's first solo concert at the Hollywood Bowl, but never until Anaya in Albuquerque have I heard a native son receive an ovation so warm, so unhurried, so grateful. The Big Read was built for readers more than writers, and for nonreaders more than readers, but I still feel privileged to have seen a novelist and his city so in love. . .