Finding Strength in Pages
No doubt we have all turned to literature in times of distress. For many, this might be a religious text, while for others, it might be a favorite poem or even a treasured children’s book. We find solace in their words, and sustenance in their sentences.
But can this experience be translated across an entire community? Can books help us heal communally? If Staten Island OutLOUD is any indication, the answer is yes. The organization’s Big Read program was already settled when Eric Garner died in police custody on Staten Island, making To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee an unnervingly timely choice. Through book discussions and other events, the community gained a platform through which to come together, discuss local events, and share their own stories using Mockingbird as a frame.
We talked with Beth Gorrie, executive director of Staten Island OutLOUD, about how the Big Read has helped bring her community together, what advice she has for organizing a successful community reading program, and how OutLOUD is connecting their current Big Read programming for The Great Gatsby with local readers.
NEA: Last year, your community was reading To Kill A Mockingbird at a time when racial tensions were running high following the death of Eric Garner. Can you tell me how those events impacted your Big Read program?
BETH GORRIE: Let me say that we could never have guessed that this was going to be an issue when we designed the program; our schedule was pretty set at the time of Mr. Garner's death. Having said that, certainly that choice [of Mockingbird] proved to be a timely focus for community conversation. One of the things that concerned us was how polarized the conversation quickly became. People on opposite sides of the conversation couldn't hear each other or talk to each other. As it happened, some of the events we had already planned worked in a productive way to help frame a conversation.
One of them was on Atticus Finch's criminal defense technique. We had a panel of NY State Supreme Court Judge, a district attorney, and a criminal defense attorney. We had a very broad audience, the vast majority of whom were general readers—people who may not have had much specialized knowledge about how a trial works, how a prosecutor does his her or job, how a defense attorney does his or her job. By walking through what the burden of proof is, how you lay out a case, how a defense attorney might attempt to impeach an imposing witness to undercut the case the other side is laying out—it helped people to understand that even though you may go into a situation with a clear idea in your mind of who's right and who's wrong and how justice should be done, that there are steps you go through to examine every element of the case. That helped people take the temperature down a bit, and think about the allegations in the Eric Garner situation a little more objectively. That's not to excuse any injustice, but it just helps people understand better how the criminal justice system works.
We did another event in which we examined the history of the NAACP on Staten Island. It was established in the early 1920s when a postal worker’s home was firebombed on the Fourth of July. He was [part of] a black family that moved into what had been a white neighborhood. Looking at these issues from a longitudinal standpoint, it helped people recognize that there's a history locally and nationally. It put the Eric Garner case in historical context. Many of the people who were our presenters were the sons and daughters of the NAACP founders on Staten Island. So there was a powerful testimony to how important the issue is, the problems of race relations in this community. They are reflective of our larger society, and it's neighbors working together who can help solve these things. So those are two examples of programs that I think helped frame the conversation in a broader context.
NEA: You mentioned that the conversation very quickly became polarized. What about books allows them to expand the conversation?
GORRIE: I think it happens in several ways. First of all, a novel puts you in a different world. You're certainly going to be looking at things through the prism of your own experience, but you're deliberately taking yourself into another world, another community, another set of characters from what's present in your daily life. You begin to sympathize with some of them, and you begin to care about people. You might even sympathize with people who seem flawed. If Scout was able to cut through the hatred in which Cunningham was a willing participant, you begin to recognize that someone that I'm having a conflict with on my block or in my community, that maybe I should pause and take a look at things from his point of view. I may not agree with it, I may think it's deeply wrong, but it helps me perhaps think how to talk to that person so that we can find common ground and begin a meaningful negotiation.
NEA: Staten Island is a community of many cultures, many ages, many faiths. How difficult is it to engage such a diverse community in the same book?
GORRIE: It's a challenge. We do it in a few different ways. We work hard on a brochure that tells a story and we hope intrigues people with whatever a book has to offer. We try to develop a variety of contrasting events that might pique people's imaginations, because the subject matter [of the book] might appeal to varied interests. And we just go out into the community. Volunteers have a sack of our brochures and they're handing them out at libraries, at skate shops, at karate studios, shopping malls, nail salons. We try to get out where people are and engage people individually. We try to be mindful of practical considerations too, like access to public transportation, and we try to distribute our programs geographically as widely and as evenly as we can.
NEA: As a repeat Big Read grantee, what advice do you have for other communities looking to launch a Big Read or other community reading program of their own?
GORRIE: This is a challenge, because as the NEA acknowledges, reading has dropped off as a popular entertainment. I think we've got to do a couple of things. We have to take the temperatures of our communities and get a sense of what they want to read, what they're interested in, and use that as an entrée to broader reading and broader discussion. For example, for Gatsby, I was stunned that we got a couple of e-mails saying, “Why are you celebrating the one percent?” And I thought, “Okay, we need to address that.” Someone else said, “Fitzgerald was an anti-Semite. Look at his description of Meyer Wolfsheim.” And I thought, “Okay, this is something to address as well.”
To take the anti-Semitism aspect, we did a program where we discussed race, faith, and sexuality in Gatsby. There's a description that Fitzgerald gives of Wolfsheim in the speakeasy, and it invokes some anti-Semitic stereotypes. We contrasted that with his [Fitzgerald’s] secretary's memoir, Frances Kroll Ring, who was herself Jewish and talked about working with Fitzgerald. She addresses the issue of anti-Semitism in her book. So finding interesting companion literature helps put things into context.
We also did something very recently in which we contrasted Gatsby's financial fraud with a novel by Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities and with The Wolf of Wall Street, and put the financial fraud in context of what's ripped from the headlines today. It helped people see Gatsby as something that has contemporary relevance. By finding literature that can relate to a community or that can be related to current events help people I think grasp its relevance and its importance and its lessons for contemporary readers.
NEA: What lessons have you learned in terms of programs or events that don’t work?
GORRIE: Some things are just unpredictable. An event that you think is going to draw a big crowd draws a nice audience but not a large audience. This is a piece of advice for anyone who runs a Big Read or any reading program: just because you don't have a standing-room only crowd, doesn't mean it's not a good event. This has come up in some reader conversation. A book discussion can be a really good, quality event even if it draws six to ten people. You can have a probing conversation with a smaller group. If you've touched those people, seeds are planted, and they're going to be moved by what they experienced and they're going to share it with others. You slowly build word of month. So don't be too worried. You're going to aim and you're going to promote and try and get as large a turnout as you can, but don't be discouraged if you get a smaller turnout because those conversations can be sometimes more probing.
I think you [also] have to substitute the community's judgment or the community's suggestions for your own. Try and make it as relevant to the community as you possibly can. Some of it's going to be a sales job—you've got to find a way to phrase what you're doing and why you're doing it in a way that makes sense to people.
NEA: Over the years, how do you think the Big Read has benefited Staten Island?
GORRIE: I think we've drawn in more people who weren't habitual readers, or had been but got turned off somehow somewhere. One issue that people frequently raise is, “I had to read that in school, and I hated it.” I got that from a few people with respect to Gatsby. But then we persuaded them to come, and they saw the program, they saw the book in a new light as a result of the program.
For more information about the Big Read and to apply for a 2016-17 Big Read grant, visit neabigread.org.