The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Kid

April 23, 2008
Massilon, OH

As with umbrellas and rain, so with photographic equipment and spectacle. If you want to make something photogenic happen, just lose your camera. That's how I found myself sitting Saturday night in the newly consecrated Fairless Middle School Auditorium in Western Stark County, Ohio, trying not to notice the astronomical adorability quotient of the father and son a couple of seats away. Since I got a voice-recognition device to do my blogging for me from Monroe, Michigan, last week, let's see if I can do a camera's work today:

Picture a small boy, too young to read but old enough to want to. He's parked on his dad's lap front row center, both of them listening to the Canton Symphony Orchestra String Quartet play, beautifully, a regrettably stingy three out of four movements of Dvorak's American Quartet.

The kid and his dad have been sitting there since the program began an hour and a half ago with the same poised string quartet playing ?Heliotrope Bouquet? as if Scott Joplin had arranged it for this very band. Some thought obviously went into both selections, since The Call of the Wild was written in 1903, three years before Joplin's rag and ten years after the Dvorak.

Anyway, the pair then sat raptly through a cheerful welcome from Massillon Museum executive director Christine Fowler Shearer, who's heroically shepherded this whole Big Read to the starting line, despite both staff turnover and the distraction of an ballot issue on which her budget depended. (The good guys won; did the Big Read help? Who can say?)

Next up onstage was me, drawing strenuous parallels between sled teams, string quarterts, four-partnered Big Reads and, so help me, quadrupeds in general. From the podium, I pointed out the kid as an example of the program's indirect but maybe most important beneficiaries. Graciously, he didn't squirm.

Then state representative Scott Oelslager stepped up to introduce the keynote speaker. Oelslager's a jovial sort whose dad taught social studies thereabouts, and he still narrates with almost explicable pride the day he saw Roberto Clemente throw out Willie Mays trying to stretch a triple at Forbes Field. No fidgeting from the kid about that.

Then came Prof. Jeanne Campbell Reesman of the University of Texas San Antonio, author of several books about Jack London, with two more on the way later this year. She delivered a university-grade keynote about "The Call of the Wild as a Slave Narrative" that made believers of the whole crowd. Think about it: Buck is lured away from his idyllic life in California, made captive to a massive enterprise, but winds up free to tell the tale. If it isn't impolitic to suggest, maybe The Call of the Wild isn't the only such narrative here at the NEA.

The kid was politeness itself through Dr. Reesman's talk. How much of the nuances he caught, I can't vouch for, but he had manners to burn.

Then the string quartet came back for the Dvorak, and I got my Kodak moment, albeit -- cursed be it -- without my Kodak. This kid, his feet swaying gently to the music, his eye contact unrequired by musicians focused purely on each other, finally lets his attention stray to?the NEA's Readers Guide to The Call of the Wild. Arms around him, his father is reading it too.

That's how I want to remember them. Volunteer Margy Vogt snapped a nice picture of them afterward, but it doesn't do the pair justice. The image of these two, dad reading about Jack London, his son looking at pictures of the Klondike Gold Rush and maps of the Yukon, is The Big Read I know, and only wish everybody could see. . . .