This year’s Big Read, like many past years’ programs, has been highly anticipated by both Purdue students and residents within the Greater Lafayette community. Offering the opportunity for readers to bond over literature with a large group of other people, the Big Read creates a town-wide book club, formed through the love of literature. Past Big Reads have given Purdue students, affiliates, and supporters—myself included—the chance to discuss award-winning novels not only with friends, but also with the author themselves; it is no wonder, then, that the Big Read is awaited annually. This year, however, the program is different. With the outbreak of Covid-19, Purdue itself has had to change the way it functions to protect its students and staff, and all events on campus have had to change with it. This year’s Big Read is unlike any we have previously seen, with the whole campaign going entirely virtual, increasing its accessibility. Although there is a disconnect due to a lack of in-person contact, this year’s Big Read is opening up possibilities for future years and changing how we think about the event at its very core.
As the summer started after a chaotic end of spring semester, one thing was clear: the Big Read was going to need to be online. With this being her first year as assistant director of the Big Read, Erika Gotfredson has had to consider the give and take of an entirely virtual campaign and use this knowledge while planning each event. The virtual platform of this year’s Big Read has allowed Erika to broaden her technological skills and reconsider the concept of accessibility within the Big Read. With more engagement in events due to the all-online platform—allowing audience members to participate from the comfort of their own home, on their own time—each event has become more accessible. Those previously unable to attend events due to prior engagements, personal restrictions, or distance can access most of these events long past the time they are posted, from anywhere in the world. With lectures on certain aspects of the book, such as the Russian/Slavic fairy tale elements, as well as recorded panel discussions, events that were once one-time-only opportunities have become evergreen tools for better understanding the novel. Some of these events are recorded through the likes of Zoom, while others are posted as podcasts or require present participation, like during the Kahoot Fairy Tale trivia night. Through different forms of media, the Big Read can reach out to wider audiences and create events that engage different types of participants.
Increased accessibility has changed the way the audience interacts with the content during events as well. In past years, many of the Big Read events have opened the floor to general book discussions for those in attendance. This year, however, has allowed the organizers to focus on the themes of this year’s novel, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. Each recent event has intentionally thought about the novel in different contexts, from the fairy tale aspects found within it, to its representation of the Jewish diaspora and feminist elements. As Erika says, “the audience is now thinking about the book in different ways that work together to benefit the understanding of the meaning of the book.” This sharing of the layers of literature is in line with the purpose of the Big Read. Having it entirely online furthers the program’s stated goal of helping participants “slow down and make time for fiction and poetry” in a “fast-paced digital world” (English@Purdue), proving that it is possible to merge digital culture with the joys of reading. Reading is escapism, especially when it comes to Spinning Silver; according to Erika, it “provides distance as it allows us to think through important questions,” such as the effects of anti-Semitism and gender norms.
Although there are clearly many benefits that go with the move to an all-online format, there are, of course, tradeoffs. There is something to be said for meeting in-person to discuss literature. Although a virtual format is accessible, there still remains an inherent level of distance. In past years, being able to meet and directly ask questions of a talented writer in the same room as you was a leveling experience—the author of a critically acclaimed book became less of a symbol to those in the room, and more of a person. However, with events all online, this leveling proximity is harder to achieve. Additionally, there is more room to hide in the shadows of online anonymity and also a risk that the audience will participate less actively in the events.
When discussing the Purdue Writing Lab’s involvement in the Big Read with Elizabeth Geib, the Assistant Director of Writing Across the Curriculum and Workshops, I mentioned this instinct to hide while online; face-to-face interaction seems to me to hold more draw for active participation. In directing the Writing Lab’s online module, therefore, Elizabeth asked us to consider ways to compensate. As a tutor at the Writing Lab, I have been working on a series of videos for the Big Read about “Writing Fairy Tales,” and have considered the merits of using voiceover for these tutorials, rather than a video of myself and my fellow tutors. Voiceovers may allow audience members to focus on the information being shared and how they may use it, rather than the faces of those speaking. With our own more passive engagement with the audience, we are leaving room for those watching these modules to prioritize their own creativity, cultivating a space where our anonymity as Writing Lab tutors gives way to more confidence and active participation in writing from those watching. Additionally, these tradeoffs to a virtual platform lead us to consider constant improvement with current and future online events. As Elizabeth says, “we are working on the things we can control and continue to ask questions about things we can’t control while working on finding other means [to reach out to our target audiences].”
We continue to test these boundaries through each new Big Read event. Moving to a virtual format allows us to vary the type of media we use, encouraging different modes of engagement. Some events allow for passive participation, while others, such as the Fairy Tale trivia night or the Enchanted live watch party on Twitter, allow for real-time interaction. For the trivia night and the Twitter watch party, undergraduate and graduate students from Purdue, as well as local high schoolers, interacted with one another online. These two events were casual and informal, allowing participants to tweet their genuine responses to scenes from the movie Enchanted, or to test their knowledge of fairy tales while competing for prizes via Kahoot, a game-based learning platform and online quiz app. This year’s virtual format is creating new possibilities for community-building. A larger variety of events, such as the Fairy Tale writing module or the book discussion podcasts, have been made possible due to the fresh start an online format provides. Although we are used to bonding over literature in-person, this year’s challenge is to discover how to do so virtually. With the accessibility of online events, we are discovering new ways to connect through books, and new technologies to deliver future Big Reads.
“English@Purdue: The Big Read.” EnglishPurdue The Big Read, cla.purdue.edu/english/thebigread/purduebigread/.
Fayth Schutter is double majoring in Professional Writing and Mass Communication at Purdue University.