The Big Read is a national program created by the NEA intended to inspire and motivate communities to read. Library systems pick a book from a number of classic titles and then offer events and programs in support of the book.
Last week I had the honor to deliver the opening address for the Jacksonville Library's Big Read events. They've built a fantastic library down there and after the Much Ado About Books Festival they kept me around to talk to local families about THE CALL OF THE WILD. For what it's worth, I decided to post my speech:
I’d like to thank the Jacksonville Public Library for having me down here where it’s warm instead of freezing in New Jersey. Thanks to Keith McLaughlin and everyone here at this fantastic library.
My mother and grandmother were both children’s librarians so I grew up in libraries – I can’t tell you what an important part libraries have played in my life.
Libraries were also incredibly important to young Jack London. He was born into a life of grinding poverty. If you think you’re poor today, compared to Jack, you’re not. There was no social net to protect him at all. Wits and will was how people got along. A free library was a gift to a young man with a thirst for knowledge. It’s where he educated himself. And if it hadn’t been for a librarian who took an interest in him and pointed him in the right direction each time he needed it, who knows where he might have ended up. That’s what a great librarian truly does – helps guide a questing mind.
I’d like to welcome all of you to the Kick-off event for this year’s JaxRead program. This is part of a nationwide program called the Big Read, supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. Its mission is simple, to inspire people across the country to pick up a good book. I am the author of a new novel called Jack London in Paradise. I can’t think of a better good book to pick up than the book JaxRead has selected and that I’m here to talk about tonight, Jack London’s Call of the Wild.
It’s hard to believe that this amazing book is over a hundred years old. It was published in 1903 but you could be led to think that it was just written last week. That’s one of the reasons that The Call of the Wild is such an important book – it is what they call a timeless tale. Jack was twenty-six years old when he wrote it. It was his second novel in what would become an amazing string of fifty books over the next fourteen years with over twenty of them novels. The Call of the Wild is not a very long book but it took Jack London a long time to write it. He hadn’t seen his friends in a long time while he was working on it. When he finished it he brought all his friends to his home and read the whole thing to them. All of them knew by the next morning that it was a masterpiece.
The Call of the Wild is an adventure story. It’s an adventure story about a dog. A dog named Buck. Nowadays we’re used to realistic stories where animals are the heroes: classics like The Yearling, Misty of Chincoteague, The Black Stallion, Black Beauty, even Bambi. If you haven’t read those books, you ought to. But remember, when Jack wrote The Call of the Wild no one had ever down it before. It was crazy. And an incredible leap of imagination. And it was a huge bestseller.
Although The Call of the Wild is a book about a dog, it’s not really a children’s book. It’s an
adventure story and it’s violent and sometimes very scary. After all it’s called The Call of the Wild, not The Call of the Backyard. London writes about the dog’s feelings, he doesn’t try to make Buck think like you or me. Buck the dog is stolen from his happy home and taken to the frozen land of Alaska during a period known as the Gold Rush, when people from all over went there to try and discover their fortunes. It was a very difficult environment to survive in. People, and dogs, were sometimes mean and life is not always fair. Bad people don’t always get punished and good people sometimes get hurt. Buck doesn’t even know he’s on an adventure, he’s just trying to survive in his new life. Buck not only conquers the weather, the harshness of the men, the other dogs and the wolves he comes into contact with, he thrives. What makes the story so great is that Buck sees the worst and best in people along the way until he finds his own place to be happy.
Why is The Call of the Wild still being read a hundred years after it was written? After all, there are no wizards, nor vampires, nor ‘droids in this book. And yet a lot of people like this library, and the NEA and me, think you should take a look at this book. Don’t you hate having to read a book that everyone says is important? Well, I’m here to tell you that, yes, this book is important, but it’s also an exciting story that will blow your mind, as my young son would say. The Call of the Wild is really about answering the call to go on an adventure. Jack London, the writer, heard this call and went on an incredible adventure to the Gold Rush when he was only twenty-one. Now to some of you, twenty-one might seem like an incredibly old age, but I’m here to tell you that when Jack did this, he was a young man
He traveled by boat, by foot, and by dog-sled, over mountains, rivers, and frozen tundra and he was hoping to find a gold mine. What he found instead was gold of a different sort. Remarkable stories like “To Build a Fire”, “An Odyssey of the North,” and White Fang came out of his time in the Yukon.
Jack London reminds us even today that sometimes we all have to look for adventures in our lives. We should all answer the call of the wild, every now and then. Jack took many adventures in his life. He sailed the ocean, traveled the country, explored the world. He lived a life that wasn’t safe in an age when you couldn’t use your cell-phone to call for help. He discovered the great freedom and beauty to be found when in exploring the wilderness and that you can
discover wonderful things about yourself as well.
Now I’m not suggesting that everyone here rush out in search of adventure. Remember, adventure found Buck. And adventure will find you some day. Meanwhile, books can be much safer. And not every adventure will lead you into the wild. Reading a book like The Call of the Wild or My Side of the Mountain, The Island of the Blue Dolphins or Hoot can help you appreciate nature and the environment even if you’re just taking a walk in the park. You may not be able to explore the Yukon anytime soon to search for fortune and glory, but the whole idea of adventure in our age may have changed. But the wild hasn’t. Now when we answer the Call of the Wild it is to help preserve those wild places, be it the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge, or here, closer to your home, the Everglades, for future generations.
Because a hundred years from now people will still be reading The Call of the Wild and we want to make sure that a hundred years from now there are still some wild places where that call can be heard and answered by someone who needs a little adventure in their lives.