The Big Read Blog (Archive)

No Island Is an Island

May 8, 2009
Kelleys Island, OH

Kelleys Island, Ohio, did it. They did it. Everybody on this small, ice-locked Lake Erie island -- but everybody -- read To Kill a Mockingbird last month, all 134 of them. What started as a reckless challenge I tossed out at last year's Big Read orientation turned into local pledge, then a countywide sensation, and eventually a low-grade international human-interest story, with reporters as far away as the Manchester Guardian and Russia weighing in on the festivities. For an isolated island, the simple act of reading a book sure brought a little piece of the world to its doorstep. It all culminated in a justly proud celebration last Thursday at the high school gym, where islander after islander took the microphone to thank their neighbors for daring them to do this.

A mere fraction of all 134 Kelleys Islanders who read To Kill a Mockingbird, plus one very relieved ringer in the last row. Photo by Luke Wark

Naturally, one big human-interest story on Kelleys Island is only the sum of 134 individual ones. To keep things in perspective, let's just zoom in on one: the mayor, friendly Robert Quinn, who hesitantly took the stage and admitted to his constituents that safeguarding the public interest usually leaves him little time for pleasure reading. "I haven't read a book in a long time," he said, sheepish. "Probably" ? sotto voce here -- "30 years."

Now, in a perfect world, a local chief executive's confession that book-reading isn't his bag might be grounds for impeachment. But in this fallen one, neighbors just nodded knowingly as he enumerated the two principal hurdles he'd found in cracking his first novel since high school: "For me, the biggest challenge was just getting started ... The second biggest challenge was putting names to faces."

In these challenges, I suspect Mayor Quinn isn't alone. Even the most readerly among us know that reading a book represents a time commitment, and this can make getting started a little daunting. And a simple thing like keeping all the characters straight, when you're out of practice and used to more visual forms of entertainment, can make even Mockingbird feel like Crime and Punishment.

So I'm more impressed than ever that all those Kelleys Islanders found the time and concentration to make room for a book in their lives. When I started this blog, I scarcely dared hope that someday I'd find myself in league with Big Read volunteers as dedicated as Elaine Lickfelt and reading professionals as enthusiastic as Sandusky County Library's Terri Estel.  Without them, I'd certainly never have made my foolhardy vow to eat a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird if Kelleys Island fell short of 100% participation.

Now, my optimism and my G.I. tract have both been spared. The only question now is, what next? A couple hundred new grantees will pour into Minneapolis next month to swap ideas about how to make Kelleys Island's success their own. What new ridiculous challenge can I throw out for some unwary city or town to take up? Can every last soul in a designated Big Read town get a library card? Can everybody memorize a fraction of The Great Gatsby, or The Shawl, or whatever their local book might be, so that together they can recite the whole thing? The silly possibilities are endless, but the mission remains unchanged: Get America reading again.

Consider the suggestion box open?

[For the full story on the Kelleys Island challenge, see prior posts from March 12 and March 16]