January is a great time to start an exercise program, go on a diet or begin a health-related program such as stopping smoking or giving up drinking alcohol.
In 2009, February and March are going to be a great time to do something for the rest of your health - above the chin, as it were.
Over the past five years, the National Endowment for the Arts has done two separate, scientific studies which produced some very grim information about our nation's health. Americans are systematically reading less and less, and worse, are doing most of the reduction in the kind of reading which builds creativity and imagination: the reading of literature.
Above is an artist’s view of Nell Harper Lee, who wrote this year’s featured novel of The Big Read, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Charles J. Shields, who has written a biography of author Harper Lee called “I Am Scout,” will give a number of lectures and presentations in Western New York as part of the 2009 Big Read.
In 2007, the NEA sponsored a program called The Big Read. The goal of the program was to inspire 533 local agencies - throughout all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands - to select a book from a list of recognized classics, and to use their own creativity to encourage people in their area to read, discuss and participate in dramatizations, showings of commercial films, and even fun activities, relating to the central book, such as fun fairs and cookoffs.
Fredonia State University was one of the early participants in the first year of The Big Read. They reached out to the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System, an organization of more than 30 public libraries in the two counties. In 2007, our part of New York state was filled with people reading Ray Bradbury's novel "Fahrenheit 451."
Book clubs read and discussed the book, showings of the film took place in many communities, the Jamestown Fire Department sent its members to cook firehouse chili at opening ceremonies at the James Prendergast Library in Jamestown, and more than 100 other events had people reading, discussing and learning.
It worked so well they're going to do it again.
This year, the committee at Fredonia State and the library system has selected the classic novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," published in 1960 by Harper Lee. If things go as planned, you're going to be hearing about, talking about, thinking about and learning about that wonderful piece of literature. We all need an occasional nudge in the right direction, but for the good of the country and our schools, and for our own good, let's jump in and do what we can to make this year's The Big Read even bigger and more successful than the one in 2007.
Organizers have been working on this project for many months. We're trying to help out by telling the community that it's going to happen. The trouble with that is that people go to one event, find it wonderful, and decide to organize something additional, or in a different place, and it's too late to include the second event in the column.
So, let's do this. I'll tell you about what has already been confirmed and planned, so you can contact your local school system or library system and find out what they're doing, where they're doing it, and how you can get the most out of it. Whatever else you do, read the book. It's both fun and oh, so healthy for our nation and the world.
Where to start
The chairman of our local The Big Read is Randolph Gadikian of Reed Library on the campus of Fredonia State. He has offered materials and assistance to public libraries and school districts throughout Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties.
Hundreds of free copies of "To Kill a Mockingbird" have been distributed around the area. Free copies of the DVD of the Academy Award-winning 1962 film, which starred Gregory Peck and Robert Duval, were also distributed, along with both reader's guides for those who want to read the book on their own, with some suggestions of things they might not notice in it, plus teachers' guides, for those who want to head up a class, whether a formal school class or group of friends.
If you haven't already read "To Kill a Mockingbird," it is the story of a small-town lawyer in the American South, during the darkest years of the Great Depression. Despite enormous social pressure, economic suffering and worse, especially the brutal racism which so defaced our nation in those days, the lawyer stands up for what is moral and right, and teaches his children a lesson in being a hero.
At Prendergast Library, they will focus on the theme "Lawyers and Literature," and share the focus with a man from our area who endured similar pressures and rose to do great good during those same years: Supreme Court Justice and Nuremberg prosecutor Robert H. Jackson. Many of the South County activities will take place at the Jackson Center.
Participants of all ages are encouraged, in addition to reading the Harper Lee book, to read the recently published biography of Jackson by author Gail Jarrow, and to realize the significant degree to which our own area is integrated into the events of the books.
At the very least, you could read one or both of the featured books.
When you've read the book, chances are good that you'd enjoy the chance to share your observations and thoughts on it. If you are handy with the computer, go to www.neabigread.org, find the events calendar for our particular area, and find dozens upon dozens of activities within a few miles of your home.
If you don't see something that especially grabs your attention or your time is tightly scheduled, you can offer to have an event of your own during February and/or March of this year. Contact your local school district or public library and arrange to have your event added to the official calendar.
Some of the events
Since we're writing this before the action begins, we can't possibly cover all the possibilities. You should watch for posters, ask your friends, keep an eye on the newspaper's activities calendar, etc. Best of all, stop into your public library or give them a phone call and ask what's happening for the Big Read.
As of this writing, 17 school districts in the two-county area have announced planned activities.
The James Prendergast Public Library, at 509 Cherry St., will hold a gala kickoff event in the main Reading Room Feb. 3 from 5 to 7 p.m. The event is called "A Stroll Down Mockingbird Lane," and you're invited to look through the trunks in your attic and wear an outfit from the 1930s. If you're shy or you don't have a period outfit, wear what's comfortable. What's important is that you come.
A number of organizations have volunteered to offer participants in the gala a taste of the cooking so celebrated in Lee's novel. Homemade biscuits and similar Southern delicacies will be turned out by the Friends of the Prendergast Library, Forte Restaurant, Elegant Edibles Catering, plus possibly other organizations that haven't confirmed participation as of this writing. Popular music from the 1930s will be played and displays of collectibles from that period will be shown. There is no admission charge, nor any charge for the samples of Southern cooking.
The Fredonia State campus will offer an exhibit on the life and death of Emmett Till, one of the victims of lynching during the post-World War II civil rights movement. Public school classes or groups can arrange to tour the exhibit, discuss "To Kill a Mockingbird" and tour the college's campus. The Till exhibit will be in Reed Library.
There are a number of opportunities for groups to read aloud from the novel and discuss its content in the Carnahan-Jackson Center for Learning and Scholarship.
A panel of professors of social science subjects will discuss the impact of literature, such as the Lee novel, on the actual civil rights Movement on Feb. 5 at 7 p.m.
On Feb. 11 at the Robert H. Jackson Center at 7 p.m., hear a presentation by Charles J. Shields, who recently published a biography of Nell Harper Lee. She wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird" and plays an important part in both Truman Capote's book "In Cold Blood," and in Hollywood films about the writing of that novel, such as "Capote." There is no charge for admission, but organizers appreciate if you bring a canned good to be sent to area food pantries.
Also on Feb. 11, the 1891 Fredonia Opera House will show the film "To Kill a Mockingbird" at 7 p.m. The following evening at 7 p.m., Shields will repeat his presentation which was given in Jamestown the night before.
At 1 p.m. Feb. 12, Shields will speak on the campus of St. Bonaventure University on the same subject.
Feb. 17 at 8 a.m., join local birdwatcher Jeremy Linden for two hours of examining local birds, which I'm told do not include Mockingbirds. It will take place at Dunkirk Harbor. The presentation is geared for beginners, but birders of all degrees of experience are welcome to share their knowledge with the group.
On Feb. 21, members of the children's department at Prendergast Library will invite children and their parents to make memory boxes, like the one which plays a major role in the plot of "To Kill A Mockingbird." Children should bring their own boxes, whether wooden boxes such as are described in the novel, or a cardboard box, such as a shoe box. The library will provide items to decorate and suggestions for filling it in a manner which will be meaningful over the years.
Throughout March, Reed Library will replace the Till exhibit with a new one, called "Faces of Liberty." It will offer photographic documentation of 22 cases in which people of all ages and social position have stood up for the right in the face of persecution.
On March 4, 11, 18 and 25 at the Robert H. Jackson Center, at 7 p.m., films on the subject of justice and the law will be shown.
All of these events, without admission charge, are just the beginning of this year's The Big Read.
Oh, I know all the excuses. The weather is bad. We all have a lot of mail to answer. If you borrow the book and keep the book longer than the due date, they might charge you a five-cent late fee. Right. Wow.
But, here's a chance to broaden your understanding of the world, have fun and public discourse with your friends and neighbors, and demonstrate to our younger citizens that learning matters. Turn off the television, read the books, and talk with someone about it. If you can't read the books, watch the film or get one of the recordings in which a professional actor will read the books. It will change your life for the better.