Friday, May 11, 2007

An Evening with E. L. Doctorow: The Big Read Finale

You could have heard a pin drop, as E. L. Doctorow paused in his reading from his National Book Critics Circle winning novel The March. Hundreds of readers from eight libraries listened to his tale about the final months of the American Civil War. In the story about Sherman's march through Georgia and South Carolina, the English journalist Hugh Pryce had just pulled a small, thin slave named David onto his swaybacked mule, and they left the ugly scene of Union soldiers beating and raping a plantation owner's daughter. Pryce said to himself, this is not your country. This is not your war.

After reading two sections of his novel, the author answered questions from the listeners. Though most members of the audience were over forty years of age, the best question about the story came from a high school student who asked why the author thought it was important to write about the Civil War now. Mr. Doctorow said that Sherman's march was an innovation in warfare. To move quickly the army did not carry provisions and lived off what it found in its path. As it destroyed towns and plantations, freed slaves and many whites no longer had homes and followed the army north. In the process a culture was destroyed, embittering its survivors and descendants. The scars of the Civil War remain today as we still have racism and regional hatred. Doctorow added that when you write about the past, you also write about the present.

The author answered questions about his methods of writing. He said that he was initially slowed down by computer word processing, as he found it too easy to revise his text. He just kept revising and not finishing until he started working from printouts instead of from the monitor. He writes facing a blank wall to avoid distractions. He avoids most quotation marks. He said that they are like ants on a page. He claimed that if an author writes well the reader knows what is speech and who is speaking without them. (In his spirit I have not used quotation marks in this report.)

The presentation by E. L. Doctorow was the final program in a two-month long series from eight libraries in the western suburbs of Chicago. The Big Read 2007 featured book discussions, fashions from the Civil War, portrayals of famous people, an army encampment, quilt displays, musical performances, movies, and slideshows about Lincoln and Chicago's role in the war. Most of the programs were well attended and the libraries have heard many grateful comments.

In about a week, librarians from Clarendon Hills, Downers Grove, Hinsdale, Indian Prairie, Lisle, Thomas Ford, Westmont, and Woodridge start planning for 2008. What should we read next year?

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