The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Bolshoi Read

October 17, 2008
Moscow, Russia

Quick, name the new poet laureate of the United States.

It?s not your fault if you don?t know Kay Ryan?s wonderful work. If I weren?t a Californian, I might not know it myself. But it?s a measure of how, I don?t want to say ?insular,? but at least deprived we Americans are, that Kay isn?t a household word. I say this not just as someone about to have lunch with her and Big Read Readers Circle member James Billington at the Library of Congress, but as someone who just returned from Billington?s beloved Russia, where poets put rock stars in the shade.

Me at the Gorky Institute, Russia?s answer to the Iowa Writers Workshop and the Bennington and UC Irvine Creative Writing MFA programs ? only it?s older than any of them. The bronze guy is Aleksandr Herzen, whose family mansion the state expropriated for the institute 70 years ago. Don?t feel too sorry for Herzen, though. He was long gone by then and, better yet, Tom Stoppard wound up making him the hero of The Coast of Utopia.


Not surprisingly, Russia has taken The Big Read and run with it. After last year?s Reads of Harper Lee in Saratov and Ivanovo, the country?s Library for Foreign Literature (LFL) and Vagrius Press have more than 20 homegrown Reads going in various stages. The LFL?s indefatigable Katya Gennieva quoted a librarian last year as saying, ?In Ivanovo, only a stray dog doesn?t know To Kill a Mockingbird.?

If Katya gets her way, pretty soon even the stray dogs will know The Big Read?s Jack London and Mark Twain. They?ll also get the scent of Dickens, Joyce, Pushkin, Osip Mandelstam, E.T.A. Hoffman, the Hungarian farcemeister Ferenc Molnar, and probably a dozen other writers since Katya and I had breakfast Monday.

Russia has even borrowed and elaborated on our international Big Reads. Cities and towns from the Caucasus to the Bering Strait are reading Dickens in tandem with England, Joyce with Ireland, writer-director Sergei Parajanov with Armenia, Tutyev with Germany, Molnar with Hungary and, for all I know, Nabokov with Ultima Thule by now. On top of everything, Russia?s also planning, if I?ve got this right, a national read of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in time for this year?s 90th anniversary of the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn?s birth on December 11.

As I mentioned to Madeleine Brand all the way from Moscow on Day to Day -- managing to shoehorn The Big Read into a conversation about international writing -- too often literary translation is a one-way street leading from America abroad. All too rarely do we get the best of international writing here at home until someone wins the Nobel Prize, if then. With our Big Reads abroad, maybe we?re helping to change that, at least a little.

According to Katya, the speaker of the upper chamber of Russia's parliament now wants Reads everywhere. The agreeable spectre now looms of countries where we?re doing Big Reads -- Russia, Egypt, Mexico and others already in the hopper --swapping great books not just with us, but with each other. Won?t that be something?