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Program in Orem tackling problem of 'reading at risk'

OREM — Kelly Kloepfer first read the book "My Antonia" as a high school sophomore, but it wasn't until she read it a second time, years later, that she "fell in love" with the story of Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant on the Nebraska plains.

"I don't know why I like it so much," she said at a Friday book discussion at the Orem Public Library. "It just shows the depths of human relationships ... and it's part of the American story. It has staying power — we always have interest in our roots."

Willa Cather's Western/romance/modern novel, as it could aptly be labeled, was chosen for study and discussion during Orem's monthlong Big Read, a literature initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Big Read began in 2005 after a daunting NEA report from 2004 — "Reading at Risk" — found the percentage of literature readers had dropped from 56.9 percent in 1982 to 46.7 percent in 2002.

"One of the weird things out of the study was (we found) that people who don't read don't volunteer, they don't go to other arts events, plays or dances," said David Kipen, director of literature and national reading initiatives for the National Endowment for the Arts. "It's as if the more time you read, the more time you have to do stuff other than reading."

Reading also links communities, families, businesses and friends together through common ideas and topics, especially the topic of pioneers, as seen in "My Antonia."

"(This book) certainly strikes a chord," said Meg Spencer, library division manager. "And it resonates with people for a long time."

Plus, "If you can give as many people as possible in the same town something in common and more interesting than the weather to talk about, they would," Kipen said.

Orem's approved grant from the National Endowment for the Arts gave them $8,000 to buy 3,900 books to donate to schools, reading groups and nursing homes, as well as offer 35 special events, lectures and discussions at the library. They are one of 117 cities around the nation participating in the 2007 Big Read.

"My Antonia" begins with the story of young Jim, who travels to his grandparents' Nebraska farm after his parents die. Antonia's Bohemian immigrant family also heads West and ends up on the plot next door.

The two young children spend their summers and winters learning from each other and from the untamed land. Jim teaches Antonia to speak English, and she learns the hard work required for farm life.

Their deep, poignant friendship continues as Jim's family moves into town and the children blossom into young adults. Antonia's sparkle and endearing, exotic ways continue to intrigue not only Jim but all the townsfolk.

"Antonia, she's a real person, but she's also a symbol of what it meant to be an American at that time," Spencer said, noting such symbolism is a bold statement by Cather in 1916 — that an immigrant could embody the American sentiment far more than U.S.-born Jim.

"I think (the Big Read) is a great idea," Kloepfer said. "I hope people take advantage of it. It brings the community together by experiencing and learning something together."