By Beau Brockett Jr.
Last fall Albion was put under the spell of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea. Through the National Endowment of the Arts’ Big Read grant, Albion became one of 75 cities to receive funding for a program meant to reinforce reading as an exciting and engaging activity by bringing a community together under one book, according to the NEA’s website.
Now, Albion will have the opportunity to bring the success of last year’s Big Read back. In late April, the city will find out if their grant proposal is accepted. However, even if the NEA declines, Albion’s Big Read planning committee is determined to make the most of their community sponsors and create their own community-wide reading initiative, modeled after the Big Read without the name.
Selected as this fall’s novel from the NEA’s approved reading list, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was jointly chosen by the local committee. A program is also being developed to place the book at its center, following the activity requirements set by the NEA to earn the title of a Big Read event and to receive funding. Similar to last year’s events, activities will range from community-wide book discussions to keynote speakers, all sparked by a large kickoff event.
Fresh ideas are also being implemented to set this the second Big Read ablaze. In partnership with Stephanie Davis, a librarian who works for Jackson College’s Prison Education Initiative, the committee hopes to extend the program into prisons. Starr Commonwealth, which helps troubled youth grow, is an expected partner as well. Back in its hometown, the Albion Big Read will likely have fire-themed events and an exhibition of the first edition of the King James Bible that is planned to be tied in with the novel.
Committee Chair of Albion’s Big Read, English professor Jess Roberts believes Fahrenheit 451 was an excellent choice. “One of things we learned last year through The Wizard of Earthsea was that the strangeness of the novel and its lack of immediate relatability actually was key to its success as a book in bringing our community together,” she said.
Much like the magical characters of Earthsea, no reader would be able to claim a direct connection to any characters in Bradbury’s bleak future of burned books.
Roberts believes this sense of removed yet relevant connection is what allows everyone to have complicated conversations about different experiences, their community and relationships with one another. Dystopian novels like Fahrenheit 451, too, have much adolescent interest, and the complicated themes of the novel also signify that the committee is taking Albion’s youth seriously as readers.
In fact, children are central to Albion’s Big Read. To the program, valuing and empowering the younger generation provides a means to bring a diverse community together to interact. The nearly two dozen eighth to 10th-graders set to lead discussions and create an engaging and inviting environment — with the help of committee members and volunteers — are at the Big Read’s heart.
This year, the centrality on youth will take on an even more vital role. On May 3, Albion residents will vote to determine the fate of their school district, either annexation with Marshall’s school district or total dissolution. “The Big Read in Albion is an opportunity for us as a community to value the education and intellectual lives of our children. The situation in the school right now is really divisive, and I think we need opportunities to come together,” said Roberts. The Big Read, she believes, allows people “to experience what it’s like as a member of this amazing, beautiful, complicated, diverse, living community.”
Although the time to apply has passed, volunteers from Albion College were welcomed to assist the program. On their application laid an intriguing job requirement for volunteers helping the young community leaders in their summer training — make them laugh.
“Something being joyful doesn’t mean that it isn’t complicated,” said Roberts in response. “I think joy is really a complicated emotion, and I think that laughter and humor both can play an important role in helping student — in helping any of us — to begin to process issues that are deeply uncomfortable.”
Photo courtesy of Madeline Drury