“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
— Harper Lee

Our love of books abides deeply, the feel and smell of them, the hearkening to the chase, turning the pages of good stories or great ideas. Yet in this age of fractured attention and burgeoning electronica, we are neglecting that lover as never before, a fact uncovered by a 2004 study by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which identified a critical decline in reading for pleasure among American adults.

“This report documents a national crisis,” remarked NEA Chairman and native Californian Dana Gioia. “Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life. To lose this human capacity — and all the diverse benefits it fosters — impoverishes both cultural and civic life.” As a result, the NEA created and funded The Big Read, a community-based initiative designed, according to its web site (www.neabigread.org), to “restore reading to the center of American culture.”

For the second year in a row, the City of Ventura Cultural Affairs Division, in partnership with the Ventura County Library, has won the support of the NEA — one of only 267 communities nationwide — to take part in the effort, “bringing communities together to read, discuss, and celebrate books and writers from American and world literature.” Ventura’s Cultural Affairs Division has scheduled a broad array of screenings, activities and discussions to support The Big Read; that schedule will continue to play out in locations countywide throughout the month of February.

This year the local effort has selected Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird as the literary centerpiece of Big Read events. “It’s a very poignant story,” explains Eric Wallner of Ventura’s Cultural Affairs Division, “that really speaks to peoples’ belief in justice, and what it means to be a kid and learn how the world really works.”

Widely regarded as a masterpiece of American literature, To Kill A Mockingbird celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, an interval in which the Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of courage, compassion, youthful whimsy and racial injustice has never been out of print. A recent survey of British librarians ranked the work ahead of the Bible as a book all adults should read in their lifetimes. The work has sold 30 million copies, and been translated into more than 40 languages.

The Big Read kicked off in Ventura on Feb. 2, with a screening, co-sponsored by the Ventura Film Society, of the documentary “Fearful Symmetry,” about the making of the filmTo Kill a Mockingbird, widely regarded as one of the industry’s most inspired film adaptations, ranking No. 25 on the American Film Institute’s 100 all-time greatest films.

Gregory Peck’s star turn as the iconic Atticus Finch — which won him his own Oscar for best actor — so impressed Harper Lee, she was quoted as saying, “In that film the man and the part met . . . that film was a work of art.” To Kill A Mockingbird will screen Feb. 20 at the Ojai Playhouse.

Since 1436, when the Gutenberg Press bequeathed books to ordinary people of the world, we have been immeasurably enriched by reading. Books produced such men as Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln, men denied the benefits of formal education, but who nevertheless, through extended reading, became worldwide icons of learning and wisdom — and therein lies the brilliance of the written word.

“From every book, invisible threads reach out to other books,” wrote literature professor and editor Helen E. Haines. “And as the mind comes to use and control those threads the panorama of the world, past and present, becomes more varied and interesting, while at the same time the mind’s own powers of reflection and judgment are exercised and strengthened.”

As another wag once noted, “A book unopened — like a mind — is no more than a brick.”   

For more information on The Big Read events, visit www.cityofventura.net/bigread, www.neabigread.org, or contact Eric Wallner, Cultural Affairs supervisor, at 677-3911 or ewallner@ci.ventura.ca.us.