The Big Read Blog (Archive)

READ BETWEEN THE LINES: Going WILD in El Dorado County

Washington, DC

Portrait photograph of Jack London by Arnold Genthe, taken between 1906-1916. Courtesy Library of Congress collection.

Back in the late 1840s, the town of Placerville, California, grew into existence when gold deposits were found in its river beds and hills. Today, the residents of Placerville and the county of El Dorado are exploring a gold rush from a different angle through The Big Read and Jack London?s The Call of the Wild. For their county?s first Big Read, the El Dorado Arts Council looked for a book with ?deep and broad connections to our community,? according to Executive Director Deb Jensen. Jensen spoke with the NEA about gold fever, the lure of free books, and bringing wolves into libraries.

NEA: How did you choose your community?s Big Read book?

DEB JENSEN: We wanted a California author, and we wanted a book that had deep and broad connections to our community---which we define as the entirety of our rural county. We particularly wanted a book that could draw in lapsed readers as described in the 2004 NEA report Reading at Risk. Jack London?s The Call of the Wild fit all criteria.  London is renowned in California as a rugged individualist. The book is short, action-packed, and masculine. And the action in the book is driven by gold fever. The California gold rush began in our county so we are steeped in gold rush history.

NEA: What were some of the unique activities that your organization planned for The Big Read?

JENSEN: We had wolves at libraries and schools---real wolves from a rescue program. We created a WILD photo gallery on our Big Read website and hundreds of people have sent us photos of themselves reading The Call of the Wild in fun and unexpected places. Our partners at the county historical museum, the El Dorado County Museum, prepared an exhibit [called] Battle of the Gold Rushes that compared and contrasted the Alaska Gold Rush of The Call of the Wild with the California Gold Rush that started in our county.?

NEA: What has been your favorite Big Read moment?

JENSEN: We?ve had every elected body we could think of make proclamations. When our County Board of Supervisors did this to kick off The Big Read ? WILD in El Dorado County, we filled the chambers with students and supporters. We promised books to everyone, including giving each Supervisor a ?gold seal? copy. The Chairman of the Board opened her book and read the opening paragraph. Everyone applauded. We thought this completed the item. Then the vice chairman called out that he wanted to read, too. He did. We knew right then that enthusiasm for the program and the book would be contagious.

NEA: What has been the biggest surprise from your experience with The Big Read?

JENSEN: People LOVE free books. We gave away more than 5,000 during our Big Read.

NEA: In what ways has the El Dorado community benefitted from The Big Read?

JENSEN: The partnerships formed around The Big Read began as respected working relationships and have morphed into treasured friendships. Friendship and respect are profound values for any community.

NEA: Why should other cities participate in The Big Read? 

JENSEN: Why wouldn?t they? Great literature lifts us, talking about it engages us with each other. Participating in an activity that has no divisions is therapeutic, particularly in a time of widening political polarization and frightening economics.

NEA: If you could meet any of our Big Read authors, who would it be and why?

JENSEN: Previous to our Big Read, I probably would have had a different opinion, but now, I wish I could have met Jack London. Full of passion, a risk taker, an irrepressible a lover of life with big ideas, in his short life London packed in more adventures in more different ways than seems possible. Plus, he could tell a great story.  

Find out more about The Call of the Wild  in El Dorado County and other Big Reads across the country on The Big Read website.

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