The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Strength in Numbers

March 26, 2007
Galesburg, Illinois

Reading a book with your neighbors, as the Big Read encourages people to do, is like seeing a movie with a live audience. It's the exception. More people will always read alone than in a group, just as more people nowadays watch movies by themselves than with a crowd. But, as any fogey will tell you -- there's nothing like watching a movie in a theater. And there's nothing like reading a book with company, whether it's your family, your English class, or, as in this photo, 600 citizens of Galesburg, Illinois.

That's roughly how many readers packed the beautiful 1916 Galesburg Orpheum for a free kickoff screening of The Grapes of Wrath last week, which I had the honor of introducing. There's a protocol to these introductions: You thank your hosts, you explain why you're there, and you talk about the book until folks start to fidget. In my case, I also like to snap a photo of the audience, to remind my office -- especially myself -- of the Big Read's ultimate constituency.

large audience in a historic theater seen from the stage

As with anything done more than once, these little talks can start to feel insincere even when they aren't. As I pressed Galesburg Big Read calendars into departing moviegoers' hands after the show, I had my doubts about whether the Big Read had accomplished anything that night beyond just showing a great Henry Fonda picture and, just maybe, whetting people's appetite for the book.

So imagine my surprise when right there in the lobby, beside the piles of bagged canned goods donated by the crowd as the price of admission, easily half a dozen Galesburgers came up and made me promise to thank the entire NEA Big Read office for bringing them the Big Read. Of course, this also reflects all the hard work put in on the local level by dogged organizer Gary Tomlin and his selfless volunteers. Just as much, though, I think it bespeaks the audience's happy astonishment that somebody in DC actually worries and cares about them between elections. As with moviegoing, as with reading, citizenship itself is something best practiced not just alone, but with a few hundred friends and neighbors.