Big Read in Parkville

I participated in the Big Read this year without giving it much thought, but it turned out to be more powerful than I ever would have anticipated.

Last night, we ventured onto the campus of Park University to watch a panel discussion of “Old School“, the 2009 Big Read book for the Kansas City region. It was a great way to spend an evening participating in the great work of librarians.

The concept of the Big Read is to get as many people in a region as possible to read the same book and participate in discussion and analysis. This year, my book club joined in the reading of Old School, by Tobias Wolfe, a novel about a young man in a prep school and the impact of 3 authors’ visits on him and the school. No spoilers here – go read the book.

Last night’s presentation was sponsored by the Mid-Continent Public Library, the regional powerhouse library. (If you want to research your genealogy, the Midwest Genealogy Center is a fantastic resource.) For attenders of events, the fact that it was sponsored by the Mid-Continent Public Library means that attendees were not required to sit through the 20 minutes of Crosby Kemper that come with most major Kansas City Public Library events. The absence was much appreciated.

The panel discussion featured top scholars on each of the authors described in the book (Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway), as well as 3 Park University students who read excerpts from the authors themselves. The students did a fantastic job – Micah Conkling’s reading of Birches, by Robert Frost, was a vivid example of how poetry changes utterly when read aloud.

The scholars were great, too. Jonathan Barron of the Robert Frost Society discussed how the poet’s themes fit into the book’s. Jeff Britting of the Ayn Rand Archives argued gamely that the repulsive character in the book was not really like Ayn Rand, though he wound up admitting the truth of most of what was written. Finally, Suzanne del Gizzo of the Hemingway Foundation and Society pointed out the subtle but important parallels between “Old School” and Hemingway’s life.

In a nutshell, the evening presented the best of what I loved about college days. Superbly bright people presenting fascinating ideas and information in a format designed to inspire thought and questions. The crowd there ranged from teenagers to the elderly, but, for a couple hours, all that mattered was literature – the room was united by a desire to think and learn.

The weather was beautiful last night. Exiting the theater, we had a beautiful view of Parkville’s lights from the hills of Park University. I was walking with the same girl who walked with me back when I was the same age as the students who did the readings. It is tempting to describe the feeling as nostalgia, but it was more than that. It was a feeling of appreciation for the great work of others that culminate in such moments, from the authors to the architects of Park University to the committees of librarians who organized the Big Read. It was a feeling of community with scholars and students, past and present. In some ways, it was a small event, but it was kind of breathtaking in the feeling of communion it achieved.

I read the Big Read book not because I was anticipating that reaction. I read it because a good friend suggested it. Having participated, though, I will certainly be participating again. (Please, committee of librarians, pick To Kill a Mockingbird!)

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