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Pittsburgh's Big Read spans generations, life experiences

| Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Allegheny County high school and community college students, veterans, prison inmates and library patrons are separated by generations and experience, but Barbara Evans says Pittsburgh's Big Read has the potential to spark powerful responses among them as they read Tim O'Brien's Vietnam War classic, “The Things They Carried.”

Evans, associate dean of academic affairs at the Community College of Allegheny County's South Campus, coordinates the Big Read countywide as part of the school's One College One Community Initiative.

The school received a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to provide about 1,400 books to groups throughout Allegheny County and is coordinating a monthlong series of free events around the book to promote literacy and dialogue.

Each year, the Big Read, begun here in 2010, gets bigger. This year, 20 groups signed as partners. New members include the Carnegie libraries, Penn Hills High School and Winchester Thurston School.

“We also take the program to the prison, the Shuman Detention Center and Renewal Inc. We've found that it's really powerful in those communities,” Evans said.

She said so many people decided to join the Big Read on their own last year that libraries and bookstores ran out of Carson McCullers' novel, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.”

The kickoff for this year's events is scheduled for 6 p.m. March 3 in Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, with featured guest speaker Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam War veteran who founded and is president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

Bob Burke, 68, of Vietnam Veterans Inc. of Pittsburgh, said his organization is pleased that the community literacy project will focus on O'Brien's collection of Vietnam War vignettes written from a soldier's perspective.

“To learn for the future, you've got to learn from the past. If you don't learn yesterday, you'll never understand tomorrow. And we've got to remember those who never came back,” said Burke, of Brentwood, who served in Vietnam from September 1965 through April 1967.

Members of Vietnam Veterans Inc. of Pittsburgh will form an honor guard and present colors at the Big Read event.

O'Brien's powerful collection should evoke thoughtful discussion, Evans said. It brought her face-to-face with a different perspective on war.

“The first chapter is called ‘The Things They Carried.' I never thought of it in terms of the weight the soldiers had to carry through the jungle. For the younger generation, there is no better way of showing the impact of this war on society,” Evans said.

Nguyen Ba Chung, a Vietnamese poet on the staff of the William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Consequences at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, said the book lets readers connect with history.

“I truly admire O'Brien in his honesty in reporting his own experience,” said the poet, who grew up during the war. “His perspective would be quite an experience and it would raise a lot of issues and call people to look at American history properly with new eyes,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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