The Big Read Blog (Archive)

To Eat a Mockingbird: Kelleys Island Reads, Continued

March 16, 2009
Kelleys Island, OH

Remarkable what a little baggypants gimmickry will do.

Last month, the Erie County, Ohio, Big Read challenged all 128 winter residents of Kelleys Island to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I casually vowed that if everybody on Kelleys Island didn't read a copy, I would eat one.

That's when things got busy. All I can say is, not even my Jewish mother was ever this interested in what I did or didn't eat.

First, the Sandusky Register weighed in. Reporter Jason Singer allowed as how, "Reading is not only good for your brain, but on Kelleys Island, it could save a national figure from terrible indigestion."

Group of adults at a restaurant counter looking at the camera

Winter Residents of Kelleys Island, Ohio, eye the pizza table at a recent Big Read sign-up party.

I'm not sure about the "national figure" part, but the prospect of "terrible indigestion" already has me up nights thinking about it. Can I maybe inoculate myself now by eating a page a day, like King Mithridates taking a daily drop of poison to thwart assassination? (By the way, there's even a word for this practice, mithridatization, that I've been waiting my whole life to use. Score!)

Mark Sarvas' literary blog The Elegant Variation got into the Kelleys Island spirit too, asking "Can't you just envision the frenzy around a lone holdout?"

In fact, I've been envisioning versions of just such a reading frenzy ever since I first enlisted in this The Big Read. Here in 21st-century America, we get bombarded by round-the-clock messages to do everything but read. In weaker moments, I get to feeling like a cultural outcast because I barely know, for example, who OutKast is. I know he makes music. I know he's a "national figure," if anybody is anymore. But I don't know much else about him, and I feel I should. If a lone holdout on Kelleys Island gets to feeling the same way about Harper Lee -- if The Big Read can co-opt peer pressure into working for literature instead of, as so often, against it -- then that's worth a little indigestion.

Next, Moby Lives picked up the story under the puckish headline "Nation's highest ranking literary officer engaged in wagering." Refreshingly, Moby downplayed the bibliophagia angle and focused on my promise if all of Kelleys Island does read the book: Pizza for everybody! Unfortunately, I'm almost as capable of eating myself sick on pizza as I am on a paperback.

So it seems my days as a literary circus geek are far from over. Ling Ma, of the San Francisco, Washington, and who knows how many other Examiners, noted that, "As of Monday, Kipen has received 70 pledges from Kelleys Island residents to read the book, and he only needs 58 more pledges to save himself from what could probably be the worst stomachache of his life."

Again with the agita! Mercifully, my date with a stomach pump may have to wait after all. According to yeoman Kelleys Island library volunteer Elaine Lickfelt, "We have 114 on the 'I will read' list and 14 people who have said no. The pressure to read the book here is fierce."

That's 114, up from 70 in just a week -- and Erie County doesn't even hold its Big Read kickoff till this Saturday night! I sense a reprieve in the offing.

How are Elaine and Sandusky librarian Terri Estel generating such great participation? As Elaine tells it, "Keep in mind that some of the impetus here is coming from a population mostly secluded for two months, and at this point anything that goes on here takes on great interest, even if you have to read a book. The excitement is palpable?

"People see me coming with my green library bag and and start to scatter. Kim, who runs the Island Market with her husband Rob and son Elic [cq?], is also signing up readers. There is only one grocery open here in the winter so now when you go in to pick up whatever, you get accosted with the Big Read and a sign-up sheet."

To recap: 114 reader pledges down, 14 to go. The Erie County Big Read starts this Saturday and runs through April. Full participation equals pizza for all; partial means a date with my internist. For the record, only the pizza party would be public; astute blog readers have noted that any eventual biblio-seppuku is on the honor system.

But I'm committed to this. My only regret is Kelleys Island's book choice. I love all 281 pages of Mockingbird to pieces, but The Big Read's book list is up to 30 books now. Couldn't they have picked our Tolstoy novella instead?