The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Tearing the Shrinkwrap Off The Big Read Blog

January 19-20, 2007
Baton Rouge, Louisiana

"Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train/And I's feeling nearly as faded as my jeans. . ." -- Kris Kristofferson, Me and Bobby McGee, as sung by Janis Joplin

Waiting for a car, actually. Operating on four hours' sleep, fueled by slushy but surprisingly tasty orange juice, I'm hunched over a keyboard at the Best Western Chateau Louisianne in Baton Rouge, my best resolutions for timely blogging already in rags. But I wouldn't be anywhere else for all the nutria in Louisiana, because yesterday I saw the future of reading in America, and for a change it doesn't make me want to crawl back under the covers and weep.

I saw at least 420 people -- the library's indefatigable Mary Stein insists 500 -- of all ages, races and religious regalia, gathered in Baton Rouge Community College's handsome new proscenium theater, all to choke up at a 45-year-old black-and-white movie.

I saw freshly stamped copies of To Kill a Mockingbird donated by HarperCollins flying through the box office window of a makeshift library as fast as the librarian could check them out.

I overheard a librarian say that she was having a devil of a time keeping in stock the Reader?s Guides that my heroic NEA Literature office had created from scratch.

I grazed along a buffet offering such literary delicacies as Scuppernong Grapes from Boo Radley's Garden, Dill's Country-Style Sweet Gherkins, and "Gossip Fence Climber" Cucumber and Tomato Salad, returning later to my hotel room to see them all featured on the CBS Baton Rouge news 14 times through the night.

I was petitioned by Rabbi Barry Weinstein and enjoined to visit Renaissance Village, a guarded encampment of FEMA trailers for 3,000 souls who could really use a few hundred new books.

I met a student in the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport reading José Saramago's Blindness for fun, and a hotel night manager reading Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice in between cramming for her teaching credential.

I did all this for the Big Read, a new initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading to its rightful place at the heart of American life by encouraging folks to read and discuss a single book within their cities and towns. The upshot is, I'm going to be blogging my way around the country this year from a ringside seat at one of the most ambitious programs we feds have done for reading since we ran out of states to publish WPA guides for.

An aside here: Laborious writers should never start a letter by describing where they're sitting, because they'll probably wind up sitting someplace else before they're done. So I'm wrapping up this post on the Red River instead of the Mississippi, wondering for the first time about all the other names the Mighty Miss must have had along its course before its Southernmost name prevailed.

But it's dawn outside this chilly window in Fargo, N.D., just over the river from Minnesota, where just down the road in Fergus Falls an entire town is, with a little help from the NEA, reading Willa Cather's My Ántonia.

The day manager just huffed into the lobby from outside, and the first words out of his mouth were, I swear, "Langston Hughes!" He says it's a line from Rent, but as a G-man filing dispatches from the front lines of the NEA's war for literature and hungry for a little good news, I'll take it. More down the big road?