Libraries’ ‘Big Read’ Collaboration Spotlights the Vietnam War
Fifty years ago, amid rising anger and unrest, America was grinding through its long, painful and ultimately unwinnable war in Vietnam. Nightly newscasts took grim account of the dead and missing. Nearly half the country considered it “a mistake.” Weary and dispirited, Lyndon Johnson would announce within months that he’d end his presidency after a single term.
It played out against an iconic soundtrack — We gotta get out of this place — that reverberates to this day.
In a remarkable collaboration, the Kansas City area’s six public libraries are revisiting that turbulent period in history through a community-wide reading and discussion of Tim O’Brien’s seminal book The Things They Carried. The two-month Big Read initiative features speaking presentations, film screenings and group discussions of O’Brien’s evocative collection of stories about a fictional platoon of U.S. soldiers before, during and after the Vietnam War.
The expansive lineup totals some 90 events spread across September and October, including more than five dozen discussions of The Things They Carried.
Partnering libraries span the state line. On the Missouri side: the Kansas City, Mid-Continent and North Kansas City public libraries. In Kansas: the Johnson County Library and Kansas City, Kansas, and Olathe public libraries. All together, they account for more than 80 branches and other service locations and 1.2 million registered users.
The Vietnam remembrance coincides with the September premiere of Ken Burns’ latest documentary series, The Vietnam War, on KCPT-Kansas City PBS and other public television stations across the nation. Burns and co-director Lynn Novick kick off the Big Read with a KCPT-sponsored appearance Sept. 8 at the Arvest Bank Theater at the Midland, examining the war and its impact in a public conversation that also features two local veterans who are part of the film series.
The 10-part, 18-hour series begins airing on PBS on Sept. 17.
“We’re commemorating one of the most important events in my lifetime, the Vietnam War, which changed our politics and our attitude toward the world probably forever,” says the Kansas City Public Library’s director, Crosby Kemper III.
“Ken Burns, who has been in Kansas City before and done work on some of our favorite sons — Thomas Hart Benton, and he made Buck O’Neil an international star — is the right guy to do this. It’s the right time in American history to do this. And it’s right for libraries to do this. They should be, and are, at the forefront of looking at our history and promoting it through reading.”
Kansas City’s Big Read initiative was one of 75 community reading programs authorized for funding in 2017-18 by the National Endowment for the Arts and its partner, the Minneapolis-based Arts Midwest. Grant recipients ranged from libraries to schools and arts organizations in 32 states. They’ll spotlight 21 different books.
The Things They Carried is a modern classic, a kind of meditation on the Vietnam War by a former Army foot soldier who was drafted out of college in 1968, began a 13-month tour in Vietnam the following year, and returned home with a Purple Heart for a shrapnel injury suffered in a grenade attack.
O’Brien, now 70 and living in Austin, Texas, had drawn from his experiences in two previous books about the war. This one, with 22 interrelated stories illuminating both the physical horror and emotional toll of the conflict, sold more than 2 million copies and made O’Brien a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1991. It was included three years ago in Amazon.com’s list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.
Its Big Read spotlight in Kansas City arose from the upcoming Burns film series and Kansas City PBS’ desire for local community engagement in connection with the series. The station approached both the programming-heavy Kansas City Public Library and the Mid-Continent Public Library, which annually stages a full-day, activities-filled Veterans Salute. The conversation turned to O’Brien and his book — he was interviewed extensively for the documentary — and eventually to the idea of a Big Read.
Bigger would be better, and the Johnson County, Olathe, North Kansas City and Kansas City, Kansas, libraries were invited aboard.
“More than anything,” says Mid-Continent Public Library’s community programming manager, Dylan Little, “the Big Read offers the opportunity for neighbors across state and county lines to come together and take a seat at the table to talk about a great book and explore its social and cultural implications. The Things They Carried is a work that combines gritty realism and stylistic choices in a way that is not only captivating for folks throughout our community; it also perfectly lends itself to the broader conversations that The Big Read strives to inspire.”
O’Brien’s depiction of the war experience “continues to speak to the human experience in profoundly moving ways,” says North Kansas City Public Library director Vickie Lewis. “Now more than ever, the ability to find and enjoy common cause with one another — in this case, over the exploration of a great book and its themes — seems incredibly important.”
The six libraries’ partnership isn’t unprecedented. They joined in a 2009 Big Read revolving around Tobias Wolff’s graceful novel Old School. On this one, though, “we all planned together from the very beginning. We’re all putting in the same effort,” says Kaite Stover, KCPL’s director of readers’ services and the Big Read project director.
The result: a broad and illuminating examination of the Vietnam War era that spills across the Kansas City metropolitan area. Signature presentations will delve into the music of the Vietnam era (including the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”), Hollywood’s handling of the war, protests then and now and writing about war. MCPL honors area veterans at its Veterans Salute on Sept. 16. O’Brien comes to Kansas City to discuss his book on Oct. 12.
Etched as it is in our nation’s history and culture, the Vietnam War is inevitably fading from consciousness. The average age in the U.S. is 39. Some 60 percent of our population is under 45, not yet born or no more than 3 years old when the conflict ended with the fall of Saigon in April 1975.
And so, this Big Read isn’t just a remembrance. It’s also an introduction. “Kansas City communities can only benefit,” says Olathe Public Library Director Emily Baker, “when their libraries collaborate to promote Big Read literature and activities in such a way that enlightens and entertains people of all ages.”
For details on all Big Read KC programming and how to get involved, go to www.bigreadkc.org.