Listening with heart: JMRL turns to Southern roots for The Big Read

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In honor of The Big Read’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, JMRL offers copies of the book and events that touch on themes of the heart, health, music and social justice throughout the region. Photo: Courtesy JMRL In honor of The Big Read’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, JMRL offers copies of the book and events that touch on themes of the heart, health, music and social justice throughout the region. Photo: Courtesy JMRL

For a decade, the National Endowment for the Arts has awarded Jefferson-Madison Regional Library a grant to participate in The Big Read, an effort to engage communities in reading and discussing literature. The application process is competitive as the NEA seeks nonprofit groups reaching audiences of all ages and demographics, aiming to return reading for pleasure to American life.

For those awarded the grant, the NEA provides a curated list of books to choose from. Sarah Hamfeldt, chair of the JMRL committee presenting The Big Read, says this year they “went back to our Southern roots” in choosing The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. The NEA provides study guides, which help narrow down the selection, and some of the committee members had already read the book and recommended it.

The novel takes place in Georgia in the 1930s. The chapters alternate between the perspectives of five different characters: John Singer, a deaf mute who lives in a boarding house and works as an engraver for a jeweler; Biff Brannon, owner of the New York Café, sympathetic toward even the meanest drunks who stumble in for a drink; Mick Kelly, an adventurous teenage girl and aspiring musician; Jake Blount, an alcoholic concerned with economic equality; and Dr. Benedict Copeland, a black doctor concerned with racial equality and justice.

As the novel progresses, Singer becomes the confidante of the other characters, his muteness making him almost godlike, allowing them to feel heard, their one-sided conversations like a prayer. He learns of their fears and ambitions, but they know so little about him that when tragedy strikes in his own life, they are undone.

The book’s progressive views on race, gender and disability seem ahead of their time. American author Richard Wright wrote in his review of the book in 1940 that he was most impressed with McCullers’ “astonishing humanity” that enabled her to “rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.”

McCullers later said of her own writing, “I become the characters I write about, and I bless the Latin poet Terence who said, ‘Nothing human is alien to me.’”

Since August, the JMRL Big Read committee has been planning the community events that take place throughout the month of March in Charlottesville, Albemarle, Greene, Louisa and Nelson counties. Beginning as early as October, the library has been fielding questions from local book clubs eager to know the title of the selected book. This speaks to the effectiveness of resources as JMRL provides book club kits, which consist of 10 copies of a single title that book clubs can check out—and as a result participation has increased. Last year, more than 8,800 people participated in The Big Read programs, an increase of 147 percent since 2014. And circulation of The Big Read titles has improved by 100 percent each year.

Hamfeldt says the program draws in “people who haven’t been to the library since they were children. It exposes them to the resources of the library,” including digital resources they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. She points out that the simple act of hosting an event does the important work of bringing people in to the building.

JMRL also offers public schools a set of books for their library that correspond with the theme of The Big Read title. In the case of Lonely Hunter, JMRL selected eight different titles that focus on similar themes, such as the Great Depression, deaf culture and mental health. School librarians are supportive about promoting The Big Read title as well, Hamfeldt says.

The Big Read is co-sponsoring some events with the Virginia Festival of the Book (March 16-20), and shares a long history of partnership with the event—the Virginia Center for the Book used to be the nonprofit that applied for the grant, until JMRL took on the task.

The planned events include an art exhibition opening during First Fridays at Central Library on March 4 that was created by On Our Own, a Peer Support Recovery Center for people with mental health challenges; a panel on deaf culture at the Central Library on March 7; a silent dinner at the Louisa County Library on March 22; a discussion of mental health care in Virginia by Creigh Deeds on March 25; an American Sign Language scavenger hunt throughout the month; a baby sign language story-time reading at Gordon Avenue Library on March 18 and a discussion with Cece Bell, the author of El Deafo at Northside Library on March 30. The Haven will host the finale on April 3, which will include music by Blue O’Connell and the announcement of the winners of the art contest (adult and teen), which focuses on themes of isolation and loneliness and is in partnership with the Charlottesville Pride Community Network.