Ten years ago Owensboro Community and Technical College began the Common Reading Program. The idea was to choose one book semester that could be used in as many classes as possible across the curriculum, in a effort to promote the value of literature and to introduce the first-time college student to the works of writers across genres and themes.
Which is college-speak for this. Let’s find some wonderful books, all sorts of wonderful books, and have our students read them. Let’s find books that students will just “get,” books that they might not even know are out there, and let’s see is some of our teachers can use these books in creative ways in their classrooms. Let’s pick one book a semester and have as many students as possible read it.
And let’s not just use them in English classes, they said. Let’s pick a variety of books so that over the course of a few semesters just about every class might find something of interest. And you know what would be really cool? What if we could get the author to come and speak to our students about the book they just read? OK, let’s do it.
Now, that is how the Common Reading came about, and these conversations took place in cramped faculty offices and around lunch tables. The humanities teachers who came up with this idea did it on their own, without a grant, without being named to a committee. They just dreamed it up, and then went about making it real for all of us.
In the beginning the books centered around Kentucky authors. Silas House was the first writer whose book was chosen, A Parchment of Leaves. Between classes you could see students stealing a few minutes with their paperbacks, polishing off another chapter.
During the Silas House semester I happened to be standing at the desk of an office assistant in another building, and I had to wait to get my business done while she and one of our students finished their discussion of A Parchment of Leaves. Apparently the student was troubled by one of the turns in the book, and he needed some literary hand-holding while he came to terms with the new plot twist.
Silas was our first speaker, filling the lecture hall with students and community guests, and every semester following, students have had the rare opportunity of meeting the person whose words they have read. The Common Read was off and running.
The committee works to feature a Kentucky writer at least once a year, and we have enjoyed the poetry of Davis McCombs and George Ella Lyon, and the prose of Wendell Berry and Bobbie Ann Mason. Each semester the committee finds books that explore a theme that will be relevant and fresh for our students, and so they read “The Most They Ever Had” by Rick Bragg, a book that explores the lives of hard-working men and women in a mill town, “Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York” by Frank X. Walker, and books set on reservations, or in Mexico, or India.
The OCTC Common Reading is celebrating its ten years of success with a huge event next week, beginning on Wednesday, with Frank X. Walker reading at 11:00 a.m. in the Blandford Lecture Hall. He is the first of our friends to read for the homecoming, and later in the day, Davis McCombs will read with Joe Survant. George Ella is bringing her children’s books and will read, so bring the family in the afternoon.
And just like a family reunion, there will be a reception for the authors in the evening. This is a fundraising event to support to help keep this program going, and tickets may still be available. You can call the college to find out. But if you go, I bet you could get a couple of selfies with your favorite wordsmith.
The celebration will go on until Friday, with readings that are free and open to the the public. The authors’ books will be available for purchase and after their readings I know they will be happy to sign them for you.
Silas House will conduct a writing workshop on Friday, and this, too, is a ticketed event, but worth looking into if you want to hone your craft. Or get a craft in the first place.
Please check out all the events by going to the OCTC website, at www.octc.kctcs.edu/academics. From there just click on Common Reading and all the events of next week will be there for you. Come to the reunion. Your reading family is waiting for you.