My family lives near Wichita, Kan., one of 207 communities participating in the Big Read, a National Endowment for the Arts program where participants read the same book and then discuss it with one another. The program is a response to reports that the reading of literature is in significant decline in the United States. While some misguided utilitarians among my own Christian brothers and sisters are indifferent toward literature, I find this trend appalling. Thankfully, so do a good many others.
Whether anything in this age of Xboxes, internet, and cable television can turn young minds back toward books is an open question, of course. There's also the matter of what books we choose to read. That's why I was so pleased to find that the program's leaders in Wichita chose Willa Cather's My Antonia. This is a novel about a boy growing up on a farm in late 19th-century Nebraska, and his relationship with an immigrant girl. It's a lovely book and a wonderful choice.
There will be grousers on the far left and right alike who will have something bad to say about the NEA sponsoring this, or who will care more about rumors of Cather's lesbian tendencies than about the book itself. These are small-minded people who can see the beauty of neither forests nor trees, because they are too busy grinding axes with which to chop them all down. You can usually spot them by their distinct lack of humor, and by their bookshelves filled with pedantic non-fiction.
The rest of us, meanwhile, can enjoy a fine book. One of my favorite moments comes in the wake of an immigrant's suicide. Because the custom in his home country is to bury suicides at crossroads, his wife has him put into the ground where the surveys show two roads will eventually intersect. The community in which they live, however, proves to be more merciful than that, in effect modeling Christ:
As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. S____ never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island. ... I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence-the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.