Published in 1876, Mark Twain’s first novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, may have been among the first books on offer at Champaign-Urbana’s fledgling free libraries. The Champaign Public Library had opened that very year; The Urbana Free Library was celebrating its second birthday. Along with knowing Twain from his earlier writings, some residents would have seen the popular author in person not so long before that. In December of 1871, Twain delivered one of his legendary lectures at Barrett Hall in Champaign.
Generations later, the book that introduced the inventively ornery Tom Sawyer, his accomplice, Huck Finn, and numerous iconic scenes of American childhood is this year’s selection for CU Reading, a community-wide program co-sponsored by the Champaign and Urbana libraries.
With a theme of “Two Cities, One Book,” CU Reading is meant to encourage everyone in Champaign-Urbana to join in reading and discussing the same book. Adults and teens are encouraged to read the book in September to enhance their enjoyment of an array of events throughout October. Those will kick off with an entertaining talk by Twain scholar Dr. Elliot Engel on Sunday, September 30, at 2 p.m., at the Champaign Public Library.
The complete event schedule is available at www.cureading.org. Musician and storyteller Mike Anderson will present “Stories & Songs of the River,” a program for families, on October 13. Veteran actors from Urbana’s Station Theater will perform some of Twain’s best writing once at each library, on October 14 and 16. Gladys Caines-Coggswell, storyteller in residence for the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, will present two programs for children on October 22. The grand finale on Sunday, October 28, will feature renowned folk singer Jim Post presenting a rousing hour of songs and stories in the guise of Mark Twain himself.
Both libraries have a good supply of books to loan. The title is also available as a free eBook through My Media Mall, the libraries’ eBook catalog. Readers will also be able to follow Tom Sawyer online via Twitter during October, as he tweets about his adventures.
A number of book discussions will be offered for the public. Local book clubs are encouraged to discuss the book at their own meetings. To facilitate that, book club kits containing 10 copies of the book will be available at the Champaign Public Library.
The specific topic of Twain’s approach to race and stereotypes will be the focus of a discussion led by Robert Warrior, director of American Indian Studies at UIUC, and Twain scholar Bruce Michelson at The Urbana Free Library on Monday, October 8, at 7 p.m.
While Tom Sawyer has been the focus of many “one book” programs across the country, it had special appeal for local organizers.
“Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, Mark Twain opened my eyes to the fact that terrific literature didn’t need to come from a faraway land of castles and secret gardens. It could come from a dusty town along a muddy Midwestern river,” explained Champaign librarian Linda Larson. “Knowing that the author actually visited Champaign gives us another fun connection.”
Twain wrote the book to appeal to a range of ages. Adults who previously read the book in school will see it from a different perspective with a second reading now.
But even Twain recognized that a classic is often “a book which people praise but don’t read.”
“Mark Twain looms large on the literary landscape,” said Anne Phillips, director of adult services for The Urbana Free Library. “Everyone has heard of him. Everyone has heard of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. But how many of us have read his works? We thought his most famous character would be a great place to start.”
From their very earliest days, both the Champaign and Urbana libraries offered popular books to the public. Evidence of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in Champaign’s collection dates to a printed acquisitions list from 1883. The arrival of newer editions was noted in handwritten records from 1900 and 1903.
“When we looked through our old records, we also saw pages full of authors and titles no one’s ever heard of,” Larson said. “That just reminds us how remarkable it is that a book like Tom Sawyer is still read and enjoyed today.”
CU Reading is made possible with support from the Champaign Public Library Friends and the Friends of the Urbana Free Library. For more information, contact the Champaign Public Library at 217/403-2070 or The Urbana Free Library at 217/367-4405.