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West Chester Kicks Off "The Big Read" Sept. 11

Whether you prefer flipping paper pages of a book or scrolling along on an e-reader, Eleanor Shevlin and Kuhio Walters want you to read Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. The two West Chester English professors earned a National Endowment for the Arts "Big Read" grant to collaborate with the community to encourage reading by creating and promoting events about this book.

There are more than 20 Chester County events this fall that focus on the book, war-related issues such as conscientious objectors, war literature and Warrior Writers. The two-month-long concentration on The Things They Carried and related topics begins Wednesday, Sept. 11, with a reading marathon at the University's Academic Quad, and concludes Monday, Nov. 11 - Veteran's Day - with Tim O'Brien addressing campus and community.

O'Brien penned the collection of short stories that comprise The Things They Carried as a semi-autobiographical account of his experiences as a soldier during the Vietnam War. A finalist for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize, the book maintains its relevance, conveying as much about the art of storytelling as about war, notes Walters, a Navy veteran and assistant chair of WCU's English department.

The Things They Carried raises interesting questions, he continues. For example, of the story titled "How to Tell a True War Story," Walters says, "How is storytelling relevant to history? …Memory is imperfect, fallible. It can distort how the event itself is represented in history. And yet memory and storytelling are so important to conveying the personal costs of war."

Whether a war story is true, partly true, or entirely invented, O'Brien's book has the power to bridge demographics, adds Shevlin.

The Read-a-thon featuring the literature of war takes place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 11, on the West Chester University Quad, with members of the West Chester community reading brief selections from various literary works addressing war, including Homer's Iliad, Virginia Woolf's novels and Yusef Komunyakaa's poetry.

In addition, there are art, photo and book exhibits, and screenings of documentaries. These events would not be possible had the University not partnered with individuals on campus and throughout the borough, as well as West Chester Public Library, Chester County Historical Society, West Chester Area Senior Center, Hickman Center, Chester County Arts Association, Troops to Teachers, Bayard Rustin and East high schools, and the Coatesville VA Medical Center.

A complete list of events is on the calendar at the West Chester Big Read site. Of special note are these events:

  • Dramatic Readings. On Friday, Oct. 4, at the West Chester Gallery Walk, WCU theatre students perform dramatic readings at the Hotel Warner's Mezzanine against a backdrop of artwork by Vietnam vets, compliments of the Chester County Art Association. On Tuesday, Oct. 22, theatre students perform dramatic readings from The Things They Carried at the University's Main Hall in the first floor lobby. 6:30 - 8 p.m. both dates.
  • Oral History Project. In four sessions (Oct. 18, 21, 23, 25; 1 to 3 p.m. all dates) at the West Chester Public Library, WCU students will record the stories of local veterans from various wars. Adapted from NPR's Story Corps, these recordings will be podcast beginning Friday, Oct. 18, at WCU's Big Read site in the "Listen!" section.
  • Noted Guests. On Tuesday, Oct. 29, from 4:30 to 7 p.m., folksinger Saul Broudy and historian Stanley Weintraub discuss, perform and display what soldiers sang and read. On Monday, Nov. 11, The Things They Carried author Tim O'Brien closes the Big Read with a keynote presentation at the University's Asplundh Concert Hall at 7 p.m.
  • "Letter to the Author" Contest for area high schools. The book was summer reading for at least six area schools, which will feature the book in class discussions. West Chester alumnus Karl Helicher '72, director of the Upper Merion Township Library, is one of several judges who will evaluate students' entries based on their content, exposition skills, style and originality. The winner will be announced at the West Chester Big Read's closing keynote on Nov. 11, prior to O'Brien's presentation.

Managed by Arts Midwest, the NEA's Big Read program was created in response to the 2004 National Endowment for the Arts report that identified a critical decline in literary reading. WCU last participated in the 2009-2010 academic year, featuring the book Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories.

Visit for more information and links to partners, or email Follow the WC Big Read @WC_BigRead.