The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Success to Crime

February 22, 2008
St. Helens, Oregon

Why did Dashiell Hammett stop writing for publication at 40, with a quarter century left to live? And why has America stopped reading for pleasure at 232, again with plenty of time left on the meter?

The easiest answer is, always, to refute the question. (Or beg the question? What exactly is begging the question, anyway? Is that when I beg friends to keep asking me Trivial Pursuit questions long after they just want to go to bed?) That is, Hammett didn't stop writing forever at 40. He stopped for a year, to take a drink -- which turned into two years, which made it harder to start again after three, and where was I again?

Similarly, America didn't stop reading for pleasure overnight. It hasn't stopped at all, just slowed down so fast that our eyeballs are fishtailing. Which is why I take heart from a story that Chris, the proprietrix of the St. Helens Book Shop here in the Oregon hamlet of the same name, told me last night.

Ron Hansen, a member of the Shoestring Players, juggles multiple characters, accents and genders during a vintage, never-before-produced episode of Adventures of Sam Spade radio show, as a grudgingly benevolent presence looks on.. Photo by David Kipen.

She said a woman came into her shop the other day, raving about what The Big Read was doing to her son. The mother simply couldn't get over what a change The Maltese Falcon had wrought in the boy. Improvising from a homework assignment out of the NEA's The Big Read Teachers Guide, he'd worked up entire case files from different characters' perspectives. He'd even borrowed a red "Top Secret" stamp off his father, an FBI agent, and festooned his report with "eyes only" warnings for his teacher. "'My son is so grateful for this,'" I scribbled incredulously, trying to get the remembered quote down properly in a notebook I could no longer clearly see. "He loves this book."

Here's how it works. A resourceful librarian, like St. Helens's Rick Samuelson, applies for The Big Read grant and wins it. He successfully encourages two local schools to assign The Maltese Falcon -- no mean feat with a book full of gunplay, to say nothing of the scene where Sam makes Brigid strip, to prove she hasn't palmed a grand off the fat man. (Maybe if Warner Brothers had had Rick on staff to run interference, John Huston could have snuck that one past the Hays Code.) Anyway, before you know it Hammett is on the syllabus, and now it's all you can do to keep some hitherto uninspired teenage reader from running away to join the Pinkertons.

That's just one encouraging story I heard last night at the lavishly talented Shoestring Players world-premiere performance of "The Persian," an unproduced pilot script for what eventually became the Adventures of Sam Spade on radio. The indefatigable Rick had found it in some old-time radio buff's anthology, dusted it off, and armtwisted the Shoestringers into mounting it live before, as it turned out, a rabidly appreciative SRO audience. (So you know, that's standing-room-only, not single-room-occupancy.)

Thanks to copious soundboard wizardry, swivel chairs creaked, elevators wheezed, and highballs clinked. The only unsupplied sound effect, after the announcer delivered his last vintage Wildroot Cream Oil ad, was a raucous ovation?