A RECORD SETTING LITERARY EVENT

 

By Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.

For The Sunday Gazette

 

       Except for a sporting event, a show at Proctor’s, or a rare Presidential visit, it is most unusual for a thousand or more people to assemble anywhere in Schenectady County. The event I have in mind occurred a week ago yesterday at Scotia-Glenville Senior High School where an SRO crowd gathered to hear a rip-roaring speech by Jodi Picoult.

        “Jodi Picoult?,” you say. “Who is she?” Well, though ignorant of her success until the result of the voting for this year’s One-County-One-Book was announced, I learned that Ms. Picoult is the author of 14 best-selling novels going on 15. And this year’s winning book, by a 6-vote landslide over my favorite, “Empire Falls,” was “My Sister’s Keeper,” her novel of 2004.

       The idea that Schenectady County should, as many counties around the country have been doing for years, pick one book for a humongous multiprogrammed read by all of its bibliophiles is that of county librarian Karen Bradley. Last year I voted for “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut, but we had a great time discussing the winner, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But the success of last year was dwarfed by that of this one.

       Some of this success is a credit to all of you who voted for the Picoult work. But much is due to this year’s co-chairs, SCPL trustees Jean Wildgrube and Ben Patel. Little did I know that Ms. Picoult has a huge following. At a Board meeting last year, Jeanne said “Let’s raise (a certain five-figure number of) dollars to bring Jodi hear to speak.”

       “What!” I said. “We couldn’t possibly raise such an amount for a literary event, especially one featuring such an obscure author.” One Trustee abstained, another voted Nay, as did I, but 15 or so others voted Aye.

       Well, the committee raised the money, starting with the Library Trustees, principally from generous donors such Dr. N. Balasubramanian, the Friends of the Library, Ellis Hospital, the Schenectady County Medical Society, the Daily Gazette, the Open Door Bookstore, and the Scotia-Glenville Central School District.

         So we built it (the event), and come they did, in droves. I was astounded but pleased and hid my embarrassment until this confessional piece. As was said by Fiorello LaGuardia, a boyhood hero of mine (because he read the funnies to New York City kids over the radio during a newspaper strike): “When I make a mistake it’s a beaut!” Whatever it was, his constituents forgave him and named an airport for him.

       Now, was it something about the particular Picoult novel that drew that crowd? Was the author known, but not to me, as the scintillating speaker she turned out to be? Was there indeed a big local Picoult fan club that had never asked me to join? One clue was that not since I taught at a co-ed university a decade and more ago had I  been in the midst of so many young women of beautiful mind, an attribute easily ascertained because I could see inside the head behind each beaming countenance.

     Oh, there were a few men there too, mostly library trustees, members of the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Library, WMHT cameramen, and assemblymen. I walked in with Jim Tedicso and out with Paul Tonko, each an honorary co-chair. Might it be the case that men are far less likely to read fiction than nonfiction? Might it be the case that men are less likely to read novels by female authors? Have they never enjoyed the masters that were every bit the equals of their male counterparts—Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Muriel Spark? And Virginia Woolf. Who’s afraid of her? Such thoughts are just suppositions, which, because of the paucity of data known to me, have not risen to the level of opinions for which I am paid. But I can’t help but wonder.

       So, is “My Sister’s Keeper” one of the world’s great novels? I think not, but it is quite a good one, and certainly a very provocative one. It was not my intent to review the book or discuss its sociological implications—that has been done with consummate excellence by a panel assembled by Karen Bradley and led by Marianne Potter on WMHT. By all means, check out the resulting DVD from SCPL. Suffice it to say that the plot revolves around parents who decide to conceive a second daughter “designed” to serve as a compatible donor to an older one who has developed a rare form of leukemia. And do read the book and join one of the many other relevant discussion groups being formed all over the county.

       After Jodi’s lecture, interrupted frequently by thunderous applause, almost everyone in attendance queued up in a very long line carrying multiple books for her to sign with a sinister flourish (come now, I only mean that she is left-handed). Jean Reilly carried a book of our own, the book of the moment, and another title owned by our daughter-in-law Beth, who was out of town.

      There followed a reception for “Special Guests” who had the honor of meeting the author. As a library trustee, I was given four tickets. Jean and I had intended to call a neighbor to invite her and her daughter Carrie to come with us, guessing that they might have heard of Jodi. Alas, other busyness kept us from making the call before we had to embark. “Perhaps we’ll see someone whom we can invite at the school,” said Jean.

       As we moved up the crowded aisle after the talk, whom should we see a step or two ahead but neighbor Janet and daughter Carrie. We offered the tickets, which were gratefully accepted, and, after getting their books signed, they joined us in the school library for the reception.

      When her turn to approach the author came, Carrie, about sixteen, shed all of her natural shyness and asked Jodi if she would pose for a picture with her. She readily agreed, and Carrie’s mom digitized the moment forever. The ecstatic teenager exclaimed “This is the happiest day of my life.” And it was very close to one of mine.

 

Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. is a Trustee of the Schenectady County Public Library and is a regular contributor to the Sunday opinion page.