Tuesday, February 3, 2009


I am such a fan of the "Big Read" concept: a whole community reading a common book then coming together to talk about it, to hear the author read, to celebrate the book. My first participation coincided with the inaugural meeting of my book club a few years ago. As we chose our first book, we noted in the Charlotte Observer that Josephine Humphrey's novel Nowhere Else on Earth has been selected for their Big Read. We decided to join in, enjoying the discussion questions posted throughout the period.

Since then, I've also read along with my fellow Hickory, NC, partipants such novels as Doug Marlette's The Bridge, selected before his tragic death in an automobile accident, and this year's March by Geraldine Brooks. Having taught high school seniors with their eye on college for so many years, I've also read along with them the books selected for all incoming freshmen--Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, for example.

This year, though, I want to throw myself into Charlotte's Big Read again. They selected my all-time favorite novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Every year I've taught, that novel has been my gauge for the decline of readership. I'd ask each year "How many of you have read To Kill a Mockingbird"? (Over time, my question has devolved into "How many of you have ever read a book?")

Gradually, though, far too many of my incoming high school students admitted not having read the book at all, either by choice or under duress. Sometimes, only halfway teasing, I have

told them it was the one book they all needed to read in order to consider themselves truly human. Some of them have taken me up on the challenge and reported back; some of my teaching colleagues in other disciplines have even read the book and c0me by to discuss it.

For my first few years of teaching, To Kill a Mockingbird was on my annual reading list for tenth graders. One year, our local community theater offered a performance of Shelby Foote's adaptation for stage, the first such performance in Alabama. We learned at the time that Nelle Harper Lee's college roommate was a local woman we all knew. We heard rumors that Miss Lee might actually attend the play but that she would not want to draw attention.

Through Teaching Tolerance magazine, I made contact with a teacher in Monroeville, Alabama, (on which the fictional Maycomb is based.) She shared copies of video projects exchanged between her students and a group of urban kids in New Yorkreading the novel, along with another rare treat, a videotape of downtown Monroeville during the local Hog Festival made from a film shot in the early thirties by a newcomer to the area who owned an early model movie camera. As I watched it, I could just imagine Scout walking home in her ham costume.

When I moved from Alabama (where I always taught the novel) to North Carolina, I learned that the eight grade teachers had jurisdiction over Harper Lee's masterpiece. Since I couldn't teach it myself, I shared materials on the novel with my own children's middle school English teacher.

Recently, I have been clipping the articles in the Observer related to Mockingbird: recipes for everything from Lane cakes to cornbread in the food section, discussions of that despiccable "n-word." I'm happy knowing that for a couple of months at least, people of all ages will be reading my favorite book and engaging in conversations about it. The one thing that would make the experience even sweeter would be an appearance by the reclusive, enigmatic Nelle Harper Lee; I doubt, though, that she'll be coming out.


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