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The New River Valley Celebrates "The Big Read," Featuring "The Things They Carried"

Reading is often a solitary experience, but when everyone in town is reading the same book, it becomes a community event.  That’s the idea behind “The Big Read” which kicks off this Saturday.  One book is the focus of exploration, conversation and presentations for six weeks and everyone is invited. 

The book is The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. Alyssa Archer is a Radford University Librarian who’s spearheading The Big Read.

“My personal goal is, I want to be at a gas station or a coffee shop or the grocery store somewhere and overhear people talking about this book together. So it’s really about bringing the community together, discussing it, engaging in it.”

With a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and help from libraries colleges and community centers in the New River Valley, they’re giving out nearly 9 hundred free copies of O'Brien’s powerful collection of stories based on his experiences during the Vietnam War.

“There have been studies that talk about how fiction really helps people empathize with different experiences that they may not otherwise relate to. So I think that’s the really powerful idea behind a work of fiction.”

O'Brien wrote this collection of stories some 25 years after he served in Vietnam.  The passage of time expanding the meaning behind the everyday items he and his fellow soldiers carried in their packs, transforming them into literary vessels of emotions: longing, fear, regret, joy and solidarity. Now, 40 years after the end of that war, there’s an opportunity to look back at that time of turmoil.

“Wordsworth talked about emotion recollected in tranquility and that’s the beauty of art and this is what’s happening here.”

Jim Dubinsky is an English Professor at Virginia Tech and Chairman of the newly created Veterans Caucus there. He says this book is important to Virginia Readers, in part, because this state has one of the largest populations of veterans in the country.  Reading this book offers them a chance to process their own experience and for others…  

“… is just letting people see the beauty of this work that he’s done that he’s created out of his  imagination and his experiences combined and to recognize the simple power of art and to take time out of your day/ and spend some moments in this kind of engagement with art and then engaging with the community around art. That’s a pretty powerful way to be and a very useful way to spend your time I think.

The Big Read culminates with a visit from the author of “The Things They Carried.”  Tim O'Brien will speak at the Annual Veterans Conference in mid November in Roanoke and at the closing event for the Big Read at Virginia Tech’s Torgeson Hall.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.
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