The Big Read goes ‘Wild’

Six week community reading project kicks off March 10

Theresa Fechek lived in a number of other cities before moving to Dayton in 2002, but none of them had ever sponsored a giant community reading project.

When she read about Dayton’s Big Read in the newspaper, the retired teacher/professor determined to get involved.

“It’s amazing what one book can bring out in so many people,” says Fechek, who got so excited about “The Glass Castle,” that she attended four different discussion groups about it. “What was exciting to me was the total community participation — so many people get involved which makes it interesting because they all have different theories about the book.”

After a year’s hiatus, the special project is back for the ninth time and will run from March 10 through April 19. This year’s selection is “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed. The book has been a New York Times Bestseller, an Oprah’s Book Club selection, and is being made into a major motion picture starring Reese Witherspoon.

“I am excited because this book is different from any other Big Read titles,” says Jean Gaffney, who oversees the community reading project for the Dayton Metro Library. “It’s our first adventure title and there’s a huge interest in outdoor adventure in the Miami Valley.” Her co-chair is Ben Murphy.

How it all began

On a national level, the innovative concept began in 1998 as “Seattle Reads” through The Washington Center for the Book at The Seattle Public Library. Over 300 communities now offer a community read, according to The Center for the Book at the Library of Congress.

“The project goal was to deepen appreciation of and engagement in literature through reading and discussion,” says Chris Higashi, program manager for The Seattle Public Library, who says the project is still going strong 16 years later. “Scores of local book groups regularly hold open a slot in the spring without knowing what book and author we will feature.”

Higashi says the program was created in the belief that a reader’s appreciation of a work of literature is enhanced by hearing other readers’ response to the same book.

“Seattle Reads and One Book programs build community,” she says. “They bring people together. They foster deep conversations, among strangers as well as family and friends. Yes, there’s virtual community, but whether it’s a substitute for the face-to-face encounter, I’m doubtful.”

Higashi insists people are hungry to talk about things that matter to them.

“Reading is richer when shared,” she says. “We may all read the same book, but we each read a different book — because we bring our personal histories to the reading. Through our program, we invite readers to discuss difficult topics, to voice differences of opinion from the shared foundation of reading the same book, and to do so in safe, neutral places — libraries.”

About the book

This year’s story differs from many others in that it’s the memoir of a young woman who challenges herself physically in an effort to heal herself emotionally.

At age 22, Strayed found herself dealing with the death of her mother and the break-up of her marriage. A few years later she determined to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State by herself — although she’d had no experience as a long-distance hiker. Her ensuing adventures on the 1,100-mile trail range from confronting rattlesnakes and black bears to dealing with battered feet.

The kick- off event

The Big Read kicks off at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 9, in the Dayton Metro Library Auditorium when local hikers Brent and Amy Anslinger will share a first-hand account of their own hike on the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, a 2,650 mile journey.

The couple will also present their program, “A Hike on the Wild Side,” from 7-8:30 p.m. on Monday, March 10, at Cox Arboretum MetroPark.

“If you enjoy a stroll in nature, a rugged hike in the mountains or just hearing about them from the comfort of a chair, the Anslingers will spark your imagination,” says Gaffney, who hopes the talks will inspire others to read Strayed’s book.

Discussions everywhere

“Wild” discussions — as many as 40 — are scheduled at a number of public libraries as well as Books and Co., Wright State University, The University of Dayton, Brixx Ice Co., coffee shops, and other venues. An outdoor wrap-up event, “The Big Read Hits the Trail,” will take place at Hills and Dales MetroPark on April 12 complete with hiking instructions, equipment vendors, food trucks.

Behind-the-scenes with The Big Read chair Jean Gaffney:

Q. How was this year’s book chosen?

A. Since The Big Read’s beginning in 2005, the selection of the title has been by a committee of staff from the project’s partners and sponsors. This year 19 people served on the selection committee. Most are librarians who represent the 11 public and university libraries partners involved in Big Read. Sharon Kelly Roth from Books & Co. also serves on the committee.

In May and June each year the committee actively solicits suggestions of titles through various means — such as website and social media posts. A short set of criteria has evolved over the years which describes the target audiences and page length as well as goals such as discussability and appeal to community. We take suggestions of titles from anyone in the community. A good number of titles are eliminated in the beginning because they are out of print or not available in all the formats needed – paperback, large print, audio book, ebook and eaudio.

Members of the selection committee volunteer to read titles and report back to the group. The reading begins in May and by July the list is narrowed down to five or fewer. Public voting takes place in the fall for the final selection. This time we had a total of 1,378 votes.

Q. How did The Big Read get started locally?

A. Librarians in the Dayton area began to hear about the development of community reads across the country. Readers are naturally always looking for the next great book to read and we would read the books being featured in other community reads and loved them.

Mimi Morris, assistant director for branches and outreach services at Dayton Metro Library, attended sessions at the American Library Association conference about launching a community read program and initiated the first one in 2005. The name The Big Read was actually the suggestion of Tim Kambitsch, executive director of the Dayton Metro Library. We were fortunate to get the domain name of BigRead.org before other communities used the same name.

The planning of events, author visits and promotions are done by a steering committee made up by library partners. This year’s events will be handled by Chuck Duritsch, the library’s new manager of external relations.

Q. How has The Big Read changed over the years?

A. The committee looks for a book that is different from other Big Read titles. Each Big Read book brings a different flavor to the events. For example, with “Funny in Farsi” by Firoozeh Dumas, many of the events featured aspects of Middle Eastern culture such as food and dance and it gave libraries a chance to reach out to the Iranian community in the area.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot gave us a chance to reach out to the medical community and attract more health-care employee participation.

We felt “Wild” would be a good choice because the parks systems are a strong part of life in the Miami Valley. The committee felt the book would lend itself to partnering with parks programs everywhere.

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