“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”
First line of “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” by Thornton Wilder (1897-1975)
Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” opens on a scorching noon, high above a cavernous gorge near Lima, Peru. Set in the golden age of the 18th-century Spanish colonial empire, its exotic characters include a great actress of the stage, a drunken marquesa, an obsessed impresario, identical twin orphans with a private language, and a legendary ship’s captain. Drama begins on the first page.
In the foreward to a 2003 reprinting of Wilder’s classic, author Russell Banks calls it “as close to perfect a moral fable as we are ever likely to get in American literature.” It is a tale many area readers will soon know well. The book is the focus of The Big Read — the first National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) Big Read in the Golden Triangle and the only one awarded in Mississippi for the NEA 2014-15 year. Columbus’ two-month long Big Read publicly launches with fanfare on Saturday, Jan. 17 at the Rosenzweig Arts Center.
The concept is to restore reading to the center of American culture, to engage entire communities in a common read, a shared goal, with auxiliary events to enhance the experience.
“It brings emphasis to the critical importance of reading,” said Tina Sweeten-Lunsford, executive director of the Columbus Arts Council. The CAC partners with the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, the Mississippi University for Women Department of Languages, Literature and Philosophy, and Friends of the Library to present The Big Read, which is administered by Arts Midwest.
Following an alarming 2004 study showing an accelerating decline in literary reading in America, the NEA began a pilot project in 2006, with 10 communities and four books. The Big Read debuted nationally in 2007 and has, to date, awarded more than 1,100 Big Read grants to U.S. communities. Landing one for Columbus is something of a coup. Sweeten-Lunsford wrote the application that secured the competitive $11,800 grant.
“We were really pleased to get this,” she said. “It’s the only Big Read project awarded in the state for this NEA year. We think it can be a great thing for the community.”
Grant recipients receive online training resources and educational and promotional materials to support widespread community involvement. A host of diverse events will help stoke the reading fires and immerse readers in Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel — and share something of Peruvian culture as well.
Kickoff, free books Jan. 17
In honor of Peru’s Foundation of Lima Celebration (officially Jan. 18), a carnival atmosphere with Latin American music and Peruvian-inspired refreshments marks The Big Read kickoff Jan. 17 from 2-4 p.m. at the Rosenzweig Arts Center, 501 Main St. in Columbus. The first 100 people receive free copies of “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.”
“We plan to have a booth about Peru’s culture, a booth with an indigenous game or two and a language booth where people can hear some of the Spanish and Quechuan language of Peru,” said arts council program manager Beverly Norris. The kickoff is free and open to the public.
Even before the kickoff, teachers of high school and college students are encouraged to attend a free literacy workshop Jan. 8 at 3:30 p.m. at the arts center to receive free readers’ and teachers’ guides, audio guides, lesson plans and other resources they can use in class.
Carol Davidson teaches gifted fourth- and fifth-graders at New Hope. While Wilder’s novel isn’t intended for an audience that young, other books related to Peru are being selected for various ages. “Kusikiy, A Child from Taquile, Peru,” by Mercedes Cecilia, for instance, will be distributed free to the first 50 young guests at a library tea party with Mother Goose Jan. 31, from 11 a.m-noon.
“I think it’s wonderful to get parents and students reading community-wide,” Davidson said. “And I would love for my kids to pen pal with young people in Peru; it’s a possibility.”
Internationally-acclaimed guitarist David Burgess of New York sets the tone for The Big Read with a multicultural program of Spanish- and Latin-influenced music Jan. 15.
Other related events through March 17 include a screening of the PBS “Conquistadors” segment “On the Ancient Inca Road,” a localized “Our Bridge” writing project centered around the Old 82 pedestrian bridge at the Riverwalk, weekly book groups, an art class in painting Peruvian folk masks, panel discussions, and a Table Talk presentation.
Big Read keynote speaker Edyta Oczkowicz of Salem College in North Carolina presents a free program Jan. 27 at Mississippi University for Women.
Dr. Bridget Pieschel, chair of MUW’s Department of Languages, Literature and Philosophy, said, “We’re glad to bring this noteworthy and respected Thornton Wilder scholar who will give us a background into the author’s life and help us better understand the work that we’re reading.”
On Feb. 17, the arts council screens the movie “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” The Columbus Community Theater presents Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town” March 2-8 (except March 5).
Sweeten-Lunsford said, “I personally am excited about Liese Ricketts, the Peruvian artist coming to our gallery with an exhibition in February. She’ll give a gallery talk Feb. 5 related to The Big Read.”
Columbus-Lowndes Public Library director Erin Busbea summed up, “This is a community coming together, to raise awareness of the decline in reading these days. Our hope is to make people realize it can be a fun thing when everyone is working together in a common reading.”
THE BIG READ EVENTS
at a glance
■ Jan. 8 – Teachers’ Workshop for “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”; Columbus Arts Council (CAC), 3:30 p.m. (free)
■ Jan. 15 – Music of Spain and Latin America, international guitarist David Burgess; CAC, 7 p.m. ($10/$12)
■ Jan. 17 – Big Read Kickoff (free books, carnival atmosphere); CAC, 2-4 p.m. (free)
■ Jan. 22 – PBS “Conquistadors: On the Ancient Inca Road”; CAC, 6:30 p.m. (free)
■ Jan. 24 – “Our Bridge” Writing Project, Old 82 pedestrian bridge/Riverwalk, 1 p.m. (free)
■ Jan. 26 – “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” Book Groups begin meeting at noon Mondays; Columbus-Lowndes Public Library (free)
■ Jan. 27 – Keynote speaker Edyta Oczkowicz, editor of The Wilder Newsletter; Mississippi University for Women, 7 p.m. (free)
■ Jan. 31 – Children’s Tea Party & Story Time with Mother Goose reading “Kusikiy, A Child from Taquile, Peru”; public library, 11 a.m. (free)
■ Feb. 5 – Artist Liese Ricketts’ “Espectaculor Que Mueven” exhibit/gallery talk; CAC, 5-7 p.m. (talk 6 p.m.) (free)
■ Feb. 7 – Arts for All class (Peruvian folk style masks); CAC, 10 a.m. (free)
■ Feb. 10 – “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” movie; CAC, 6:30 p.m. (free)
■ Feb. 18 – Table Talk (MUW faculty lead discussion on book characters); public library, noon (bring lunch at 11:30 a.m.) (free)
■ Feb. 26 – Panel discussion, scholars from MUW/MSU; CAC, 7 p.m. (free)
■ March 2-8 – Columbus Community Theater’s “Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder; CAC (tickets required)
■ March 17 – The Big Read closing event, details TBA; CAC, 7 p.m. (free)
Donations of toiletry items for the nonprofit Building Bridges of Hope Assistance Program will be accepted at Big Read events.
For event details, visit columbus-arts.org or call 662-328-2787.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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