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Big Read festivities come to end

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- The Albany Big Read project, which centered around promoting literacy by focusing on Ernest J. Gaines' 1993 novel "A Lesson Before Dying", had its closing ceremonies Monday night at the Albany Municipal Auditorium.

The project in February consisted of free events, book discussions and a movie screening of "A Lesson Before Dying" at Carmike Cinemas' Wynnsong 16.

"It (Albany Big Read) has been for me an extraordinary activity. It has taken on a life of its own," said Albany Big Read co-director James L. Hill, who is Albany State University's chair of the Department of English and modern languages and mass communications.

Ashley Moore, assistant director for the Dougherty County Public Library, said participation in the project was high among Albany and Dougherty residents.

"We found that people have built friendships through this event. It has really brought the community together," she said.

Moore said the public library had more than 100 copies of "A Lesson Before Dying" that have been checked out numerous times throughout the month.

"We saw a lot of use," she said. "People were really engaged in this project."

Moore said approximately 200 people attended the screening for "A Lesson Before Dying" at Wynnsong Cinemas and the book discussions attracted numerous visitors.

In September and October, Hill said the Big Read committee purchased 1,350 books for Dougherty County students with some of the books going to ASU, Darton College and Albany Technical College.

Copies of Gaines' 256-page novel also made it into local high schools and middle schools.

Gaines' novel is about an uneducated black man named Jefferson, who is accused of murdering a white storekeeper in the fictional town of Bayonne, La, during the 1940s and his relationship with Grant Wiggins, a teacher at a plantation school.

Albany High School ninth grade English teacher Tonya Nelson said the students enjoyed reading the novel and were interested in Jefferson and Grant's relationship.

"They were really interested in Jefferson and Grant and this story got them interested in other things as well." he said. "It got them talking and engaging in ideas. This is a fantastic book."

Readers of Gaines' novel were also able to ask the author about his book through a video conference at the closing ceremonies.

Some of the author's witty answers had much of the crowd laughing, such as when he was asked his feelings towards the movie adaptation of his novel.

"Nobody tells me how to write my book and I don't tell anyone how to make their movie," he said.

"I just make sure I tell my agent that we get a lot of money out of it," he joked.

During his video conference from his home in Louisiana, Gaines explained the genesis of the novel that many in Dougherty County have now read.

"I wanted to write a story about an execution, so a colleague told me about this material that he had about a young man who had been sent to the electric chair twice. The first time the chair failed, but a year later he was executed...," he said.

Gaines said while he was teaching a creative writing class he had a lawyer as one of his students who had a client on death row.

"I would ask him questions. I'd ask him about the size of the strap, the height and weight of the chair," he said.

Gaines said the character of Paul in "A Lesson Before Dying" is based on this particular student.

The author also said that the novel is not meant to reflect any specific political ideal.

"The book is not about capital punishment, it's about how to become better human beings," said Gaines.

The Big Read project was made possible through a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Albany was one of 269 organizations nationally selected to receive funds. ASU partnered with Dougherty County Library along with 25 other Albany organizations to host the Big Read event.

"We chose "A Lesson Before Dying" specifically for the community," said Hill. "In the book a great lesson is learned and it was a good lesson for our community. It is not the end, hopefully it is the beginning."

Moore and Hill said they hope to continue the Big Read program next year if funds are available.