The Big Read Blog (Archive)

With an Island’s Self-Respect on the Line, The Big Read Gets Ugly

March 12, 2009
Kelleys Island, Ohio

"A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us." -- Kafka

Between now and April, all 128 Ohioans living on Kelleys Island will read To Kill a Mockingbird, or I'll eat a copy of the book.

Probably I shouldn't say that. A few renegade islanders may feel a low temptation to read the book and then claim otherwise, all for the dubious pleasure of watching a federal employee ingest an American classic. But I feel such confidence in the coercive powers of Kelleys Island Big Read volunteer Elaine Lickfelt and Sandusky librarian Terri Estel that I'm willing to endanger my own gastrointestinal tract in this dubious, quite possibly counterproductive, motivational gesture. (Perhaps a different sort of motivation is called for, one I'll get to in a minute.)

For most of the life of The Big Read, I've been wishing aloud for a town small enough and brave enough to accept the challenge of dragooning every last literate resident, without exception, into tackling its chosen book. Once I even blogged about it:

"Someday I'd like to get a Big Read into a real microdot of a town, just a wide spot in the road where all the kids have moved away and it's just 40 or so bitter-enders and a post office -- and then notch 'em all, get 100% participation?"

So there I was last June at Big Read orientation in Minneapolis, doing my usual kingdom-for-a-horse bit about 100 percent participation. Well, who should introduce herself but Terri from Sandusky, who said she had just such a town in her jurisdiction, only her town wasn't just a town -- it was an island.

Remember that quote up top, about a book having to be an axe for the frozen sea inside us? In Terri's vision, To Kill a Mockingbird can be an axe for the frozen lake between Kelleys Island and Sandusky, Ohio. That frozen lake would be Lake Erie ? specifically, the sliver of it separating Sandusky from that charming little isle, home to flocks of migrating tourists in summer and just 128 hardy souls come the winter freeze.

Huge chunks of lake ice in the foreground, a sliver of the lake in the background

The frozen sea of blue ice separating the Lake Erie shore from Kelleys Island, Ohio -- winter pop. 128 -- where every man, woman, and sentient child will read To Kill a Mockingbird this spring, or hear about it from me personally.

Cut to last month, with me sharing a bumpy six-seat puddle-jumper with a couple of turkey hunters, the Kelleys Island mail carrier, Terri herself, and a carton overflowing with assorted Big Read guides.

After we landed (and as my knuckles began to pink up again), Terri introduced me to Elaine Lickfelt, whose Kelleys Island branch is so locally cherished that the library volunteers have a waiting list. Between them, Terri and Elaine have picked up the gauntlet I threw down that June day. At an all-island party last month with pizza airlifted in, they took reading pledges from 70 of the island's 128 full-time residents ? and the rest are taking on a certain hunted look. All we need now, other than 58 more pledges, is to prove each islander's eventual claim to have read To Kill a Mockingbird in its entirety. The question, plainly, is how.

What about it, readers? I'm open to suggestion on this. Is the solution some kind of quiz? In a way, this question goes to the very heart of the Big Read, a program dedicated to -- in fact, predicated on -- the idea that every book we read leaves a mark on us. I believe in this idea with all my heart, but how do I prove it? Anybody can say they've read Mockingbird, but if we haven't seen them do it, how do we know they're telling the truth?

Of course, if the Kelleys Islanders don't see me eat a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, how do they know I'm telling the truth? So here's the revised deal: If all 128 islanders don't finish Mockingbird, I'll eat a copy of the book where nobody can see me, and they'll just have to take my word for it.

But if everybody does read the book and signs an affidavit attesting to the fact, I will personally return to Kelleys Island on my own dime to help them celebrate. Not only that, since pizza is by all accounts the surest winter way to these islanders' hearts, I hereby vow to bake the last page of To Kill a Mockingbird into an extra-large pie, and share it with all 128 of them.

Kelleys Islanders, consider yourselves dared?