'Big Read' Selects McCullers Novel

George Pelecanos, Big Read-D.C. chairman, holds a copy of
George Pelecanos, Big Read-D.C. chairman, holds a copy of "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter." (By Sam Vafsi)
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By Lavinia Rachal
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 23, 2009

As she looks out from a photograph on the cover of a current edition of her first novel, "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," Carson McCullers emanates the melancholy and illnesses that plagued her throughout her 50-year life.

Many local residents might soon see that face gazing from book covers in the hands of passengers on buses and latte-sippers in coffee shops, peering out of briefcases and handbags and reclining on night stands, as Washingtonians, as part of Big Read-D.C., collectively turn pages of her book.

Beginning today and continuing through May 23, McCullers's 1940 novel about the lives of five characters in a Southern town during the Great Depression will be the focus of the annual reading initiative.

Each spring for the past three years, Big Read-D.C., presented by the Humanities Council of Washington and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities in partnership with several community organizations, has invited D.C. residents to read one book together and participate in related events.

The effort was started by the National Endowment for the Arts after a study found a decline in Americans' reading of literary works. Each locality participating in the initiative can choose from a list of books suggested by the NEA. The arts group provides study and teaching guides for each book and offers grants to support Big Read programs.

Many participating arts organizations are "natural partners who want to promote reading," said Joy Ford Austin, executive director of the Humanities Council of Washington. Eleventh-graders in D.C. public schools will be studying McCullers's novel with copies donated by Reading Is Fundamental. The D.C. public library system is hosting events at various locations.

The Oracle Set Book Club will offer a glimpse into deaf culture through a dance presentation by the National Deaf Dance Society; a senior brown bag book discussion is planned at Southeast Neighborhood Library; and a presentation of the film based on McCullers's book at the Jewish Community Center will include an introduction by an author on the history and representation of Jews in the South.

Tonight at Busboys and Poets, the storytelling collective SpeakeasyDC will present "Outside Looking In: A Tribute to the Heart Is a Lonely Hunter." Writer Andrew Korfhage will talk about his encounter with a "drunk on the subway who unburdens his life story."

Rita Daniels, executive director of Literacy Volunteers and Advocates, will relate a story about her early life in rural North Carolina during the days of Jim Crow and how her grandmothers "propelled me to do what I'm doing now."

George Pelecanos, the honorary chair of this year's Big Read-D.C., said the ultimate message of the book is: "Love endures." The bestselling author and writer-producer of HBO's "The Wire" said he was pleased to find that "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" is this year's read. "I'm a big fan of this book going way back," he said.

On Saturday, Pelecanos will be at Gallaudet University for the official Big Read kickoff in the Elstad Auditorium. One of the book's central characters is deaf, and Gallaudet is one of Big Read's partners this year.

Pia Taavila, a professor of English at Gallaudet, a school for the deaf, is including the book in her Introduction to Deaf Literature course, which studies the contributions of deaf writers and the way deaf characters are represented. But for Taavila, the book is an important read for everyone. She said it's "a great example of realism, describing a kind of bleak outlook and existence that, nonetheless, has moments of great humanity and great understanding."

Although one of Big Read's goals is to encourage people to read, said the Humanities Council's Austin, it also is intended to remind people that "there are many, many good books in American history and culture that are worth a look."

Isolation is a theme of the book, but in the District, residents who seem separated by class, race and language will have opportunities to debate the piece together. This appeals to writer and "literary activist" E. Ethelbert Miller. "It takes the book and elevates it to popular discussion," he said.

Miller, who lent his voice to the NEA's audio guide for the book in 2007, will be participating in the Big Read marathon May 2, when special guests will read sections of the book aloud. Miller will be reading the chapter that introduces the character of Dr. Benedict Copeland, who Miller said "is perhaps one of the most interesting African American characters I've seen developed in fiction."

So what would the woman whose face haunts the book jacket think of the nation's capital dedicating a month to her novel?

"She might be very pleased that it was happening but maybe a little puzzled by it," Taavila said. "She struck me as someone who was searching for a place to sort of fit in the world, and I think that's why her book is so powerful."

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