The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Big Read in the Crosshairs, and Set to Music

March 4, 2008
Worcester, MA

When I first heard about The Big Read sponsored by UMass Memorial Healthcare, I have to admit I pictured a couple of candystripers pushing a book cart down a hospital corridor. What I discovered when I fetched up in Worcester the other day was something altogether different, and leagues better. More about this soon I hope, but for now have a look at this shot of the sisters Labeeby and Irma Servatius.

Irma heard about Worcester's Read of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and volunteered to play for the kickoff last month. That went so well that Sharon and Rosa of UMass invited her to come back to play for the finale I attended over the weekend. Out of her and her sister's fiddles poured Telemann, Britten, and Mozart, accompanied by an extemporaneous interweaving of musical and literary commentary from Irma that would have done Leonard Bernstein proud.

I bring this up not just because it knocked my eye out, or because Irma's new chamber orchestra deserves all the encouragement and support it can get, but also because of what ran in the L.A. Times last Monday. Under the headline "Big Read or Big Waste?", some freelance blogger got off an op-ed piece at the expense of a certain nationwide reading program dear to us all.

This shouldn't have bothered me so much. Time was, I'd have written most anything for a byline in my hometown paper, so I can't really begrudge some other guy for coveting the same platform. But anybody who knows me knows how much I believe in The Big Read. The thought that we're all going to have to work even harder to dispel a few misperceptions created by this piece, just set my ordinarily tepid blood to boiling. I fired off a letter to the editor, the gist of which the Times obligingly ran as follows:

Last week, a woman in St. Helens, Ore., thanked a nationwide program called the Big Read for getting her teenage son to dive into Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon - - thanks I keep hearing, in different words, all across the country. But this Op-Ed article called the one-city, one-book initiative from the National Endowment for the Arts silly and sentimental, and asked incredulously, "Who could be inspired?"

Don't take my word for its effectiveness. Ask any of the roughly 500 people who jammed a Big Read event last April in Santa Clarita to cheer for Ray Bradbury; or see for yourself, by attending any of dozens of Eastside events this spring celebrating Rudolfo Anaya's novel, Bless Me, Ultima.

Who could be inspired by such "unobjectionable" writers as Hammett, Bradbury, Anaya and Cynthia Ozick? Everybody from poor kids in East St. Louis to a Los Angeles now reeling from the impending closure of Dutton's Books, to a cynical Angeleno ex-book critic like me. The NEA encourages all people to help arrest and, ideally, reverse the American reading decline in any way they choose, but the Big Read is working.?

And so it is. The Big Read worked in Worcester, and here in Owensboro, Kentucky, last night, and I daresay it'll work in Terre Haute tomorrow. My thanks again to everybody who makes it work. Literacy coordinator Sharon Lindgren of UMass has statistics proving that readers live longer, and you are exactly the people I want living the longest?