In perhaps the biggest Monterey County reading effort on record, the National Steinbeck Center will turn the first page this weekend on a month-long read of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Over the next month, the Steinbeck Center, community colleges and libraries will host more than 40 events centered around the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The tale about the hardships of “Okies” who migrated during the Great Depression will be presented in several different mediums, from a SpectorDance performance in Marina to a Spanish screening of the movie in King City.

“People who haven’t read a book in a long time, hopefully this will cause them to shelve the remote and get into it,” says the Steinbeck Center’s Amanda Holder. “It could become the water cooler conversation as opposed to who’s on ‘American Idol.’ ”

“The Big Read” begins Saturday, Feb. 24, with square dancing and other entertainment at the Steinbeck Center. Admission to the museum is free this weekend as part of Steinbeck’s 105th birthday celebration. The center will display the pictures that Horace Bristol took while traveling with Steinbeck to California labor camps in the late ‘30s. (Full disclosure: the Weekly is a sponsor of the celebration.)

Monterey County is one 72 communities across the country who are holding Big Read events this year. The National Endowment for the Arts organized the reading galas in response to a 2004 survey, which found that less than half of American adults read literature.

From 1982 to 2002, literary reading dropped 10 percent, the survey says. “The thing that is alarming about that is they say literary reading as a leisure activity could disappear in the next 50 years,” Holder says.

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Susan Shillinglaw, scholar in residence at the Steinbeck Center, says an event like The Big Read is a perfect way to get people back into literature—and that The Grapes of Wrath is a story that has relevance today.

“It’s not just about Oklahomans in the ‘30s,” she says. “It’s about people who look strange to us. I think it nudges us to consider what it feels like to be on the outside looking in.”  


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