Very soon it will be February, and that means it is time for the Big Read.
The program has been going on for several years, and has had great success locally. If you've missed it, the Big Read is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts. It is designed to revitalize the role of literature in American popular culture and to bring the transformative power of literature into the lives of citizens.
Locally, the program is co-sponsored by the State University of New York at Fredonia and by the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System. The idea is to choose one good book and to make it easy for everyone who wishes to do so, to borrow or to buy a copy of that book. The hope is that soon people will be talking about the book, exchanging ideas about the book, and people who haven't experienced the program itself will want to be part of the discussion.
The local co-sponsors will be holding a variety of activities throughout February and March of this year, which they hope will give even more reasons why the book should be the subject of discussion and interest.
A word of caveat: We have a great deal of information about planned activities, being sponsored and created by nearly 50 public agencies, largely with volunteer efforts. Some of it has been labeled ''tentative.'' Please use the information in this column as advisory. This is Western New York, in the depths of winter. Events may be canceled due to weather.
Individuals who have volunteered to lead a book discussion or to speak about elements related to the book may become ill or may have an emergency which requires them to postpone or cancel their efforts.
The best advice I can give you is to contact the library of Fredonia State or the public library which is most convenient to you, in either Chautauqua or Cattaraugus County, and to see what they will be doing to participate in the Big Read. As time passes, you might want to check again. In past years, people have come forward and volunteered to make presentations and lead craft activities, etc., once the event got underway, which brought new events which couldn't possibly have been included in the original announcements.
This year's featured novel will be ''My Antonia,'' by Willa Cather. It is the story of a pioneer woman's life, from childhood through adulthood, as seen through the eyes of a childhood friend. The setting of the novel is the prairies of Nebraska, during the years when it was first being settled by European pioneers. Events which have been scheduled include things as diverse as presentations on how people cooked as they moved into the American West, the clothing and the dances and the books they brought with them, then adapted to their needs, the games their children would have played, and more.
I hope by the end of March that you've treated yourself to a reading of Cather's novel, and that you and your friends are talking about them. If you want young people to want education and to invest their time and their thinking into it, you need to demonstrate to them that it's important - that it impacts real life in important ways. Here are two months' worth of golden opportunities.
The narrator of ''My Antonia'' is an adult man named Jim Burden. We first meet him at the age of 10, and his story unrolls through adulthood.
Jim was born in Virginia, but both of his parents have died, so he has been sent by train, to be raised by his grandparents, in newly-settled Nebraska. On the same train is a family named Shimerda, who have made their way to the U.S. from Bohemia, and who are heading off to Nebraska hoping to build a life for themselves.
Bohemia, by the way, is a territory in Central Europe, which surrounds the ancient city of Prague. Bohemia makes up a large part of the country which today is called the Czech Republic.
Among the children of the Bohemian family is a daughter close to Jim in age, named Antonia. I've encountered some differing suggestions, but the great majority of my sources suggest that her name is pronounced with the same rhythm as the words ''Peanut butter.'' The concluding three letters are pronounced ''NEE yuh.''
The children become friends, and the friendship matures, as they age. The novel is divided into five segments, which the author calls ''books.'' Each book illustrates an element of the central characters' relationship. Book One, for example, relates a happy time, as the two play games and engage in childhood adventures, until it ends with an unhappy shock.
In Book Two, Jim moves with his family, away from the countryside, and into a small town. Antonia, meanwhile, needs to give up her life with her family and to accept a job with a wealthy family, as a hired girl. He receives the benefits of his English heritage, while she suffers from the prejudice against ''foreigners.'' Each develops separately in his or her own world, although their affection for one another and their joint memories, join their worlds together, occasionally.
Throughout the novel, the running themes are Jim's love for the land and his love for Antonia. Literary scholar Edith Lewis wrote, ''The whole book is a sort of love story for the country. The beautiful, elegiac tone of 'My Antonia' captures the taming of the American frontier as no other work of fiction has ever done.''
The novel contains many true elements of the novelist's real life. Like her narrator, she was born in Virginia, and moved to Nebraska while still a child, although with her parents.
Also like her narrator, Cather was able to attend college, which was rare for a man and almost unheard of for a woman, in those days. She eventually became a writer for newspapers and magazines and eventually became editor of a series of national magazines. She moved from Nebraska to Pittsburgh, and then eventually to New York City.
She eventually received honorary degrees from Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Smith, and the University of California at Berkeley, among others. She died in her mid-60s in New York City.
Among her novels, in addition to ''My Antonia'' are ''Song of the Lark,'' ''O Pioneers,'' and ''Death Comes for the Archbishop.''
BIG READ EVENTS
Although the Big Read doesn't officially begin until Monday, Jamestown began events a few days early, because some activities by organizations other than the library system have been scheduled for early February.
The James Prendergast Library, at the time of this writing, has scheduled a big kickoff event for Jan. 26, at which they have planned to serve Bohemian food contributed by Elegant Edibles Caterers, Forte Restaurant, and by members of the Friends of Prendergast Library. Music which would have been familiar to Bohemian immigrants, including polkas and gypsy violin music was planned.
The Fenton History Center expects to provide instruction in a dance from pioneer days and a display of items from pioneer days is planned. Because of my early deadlines, I'm writing this before the events happen, so I can't really describe it, although it will have been over by the time this appears in print.
I hope you attended and found it wonderful.
As I said earlier, there are more than 30 libraries in the two-county library system, and each has been encouraged to plan its own events. Each of them has been given a number of copies of the book, so they can circulate many copies at the same time, and each of them can get more copies within a few days, if all their copies are borrowed at the same time.
The many libraries have all been given copies of a reader's guide to the central novel, and an audio CD containing a program of opinions and evaluations of the novel, by various literary figures, as well as some readings by Garrison Keillor.
According to Randy Gadikian, Director of the Daniel A. Reed Library, at SUNY Fredonia, both the Chautauqua and Cattaraugus County Jails are participating in this year's Big Read, as is the Lakeview Shock Prison.
The Lutheran Home in Jamestown is planning public readings from the novel on Tuesday mornings.
Several faculty members at Fredonia State are teaching the novel or elements of it, and some are planning community outreaches, in which college students who have studied the book will attend events at libraries and other public sites and participate in their Big Read events.
Ted Sharon, a member of the faculty of the Department of Theater and Dance is working on a project with students from Dunkirk High School, called ''In Search of Antonia Shimerda.'' The project involves creating documentary films of family history, along the lines of the book's examination of the Shimerda family.
Dr. Carmen Rivera is paralleling the book with documentation of Puerto Rican immigrant life in Dunkirk.
A collection of photographs of artifacts in the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Collection, taken by photographer Betty Kort, will be on display in Reed Library.
In addition to offering free borrowing of copies of the book, the Sinclairville and Cattaraugus Free Libraries will display artifacts of immigration and pioneer life, during their regular hours.
An open house is planned at Darwin Barker Library, in Fredonia, which will offer displays, refreshments and music from the period of the book's setting, on Feb. 13, from 2 - 4 p.m.
Among the formal book discussions which are planned throughout our area are these:
This is just a sampling of the many events which will be happening. Again, your best course of action is to contact the library near you and ask what they have scheduled. You might want to consider offering to present a program from your knowledge and experience.
Dana Gioia, who until recently was the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said, ''The Big Read is about getting people to leave their homes and offices, unplug themselves for a few hours, and enjoy the delights of good reading with their friends and neighbors.''
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