"The Big Read" was launched last week by Oregonian columnist Jonathan Nicholas to a full house at the Odd Fellow Hall in Enterprise.
An estimated 130 Wallowa County residents gathered for the kickoff of one of 10 literary projects throughout the country, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, to promote the reading of one book in each community.
Fishtrap, Inc., is the sponsor of Wallowa County's project, which centers around the book "Fahrenheit 451," written by Ray Bradbury in 1953. The book envisions a world where a totalitarian government controls information so tightly that the job of firemen is to burn books, rather than put out fires. The title refers to the temperature at which paper burns.
The Feb. 1 kickoff was the first of a series of events to tackle the themes raised by Bradbury's book, including freedom of the press. The next talk with focus on the Cold War of the 1950s by Whitman College professor David Schmitz on Feb. 15. A relate movie, "Good Night and Good Luck," is showing at OK Theater this weekend.
Fishtrap executive director Rich Wandschneider introduced Nicholas, first giving the background of The Big Read and how Wallowa County came to be the only rural community involved.
He talked about the importance of reading and the fact that studies have shown that residents of the United States aren't reading as much as 10 years ago and "certainly not as much as 20 years ago," adding that "readers are also voters."
Wandschneider introduced Nicholas as someone who "stumbled into the Bookloft" many years ago and whose mention of the fact that the Enterprise book store was for sale in a later column resulted in the purchase of the business by present owner Mary Swanson in 1988. He noted that Nicholas has been an integral part of Fishtrap and "a friend to Eastern Oregon," adding, "Some of his best columns have been about his cows in Madras."
"It's a great honor to be part of this wonderful program," Nicholas said.
He spoke to the local audience in almost poetic language about his introduction to the wonder of books and the treasures of public libraries because of his youthful infatuation with Miss Jones, the librarian in the small town in Wales where he grew up. He described his first library card from her hands at age 13 as "a passport to plentitude."
Among other topics he talked about were "what it is that makes news so dangerous" and the description of news as "something you want to know but someone doesn't want you to know about."
Nicholas talked about the importance of books and how Bradbury got that message across in his 1953 book, which talks about such futuristic ideas as music piped to individuals through ear phones and wall-sized flat screen televisions.
"'Fahrenheit 451' is a glorious rallying call. It resonates today. ... There is more than one way to burn a book and there are a lot of people with matches," Nicholas said.
After the talk, free copies of the book were given out and sign-up sheets made available to those who wanted to be part of newly formed book clubs to discuss "Fahrenheit 451."
"Jonathan entertained and jazzed people up about reading. Exactly what the grant is supposed to do," Wandschneider said after the kickoff event.
He noted that "Fahrenheit 451" is being read in installments over KWVR radio at 7 p.m. on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays until it is completed. Over 200 county high school students are also studying the book in school.