Lee’s new memoir, Dimestore will be published in March, 2016 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Click to hear Lee Smith read a portion of The Last Girls.

Together We Read

WARRENSVILLE, N.C. Oct.11---- Bright leaves blow into my windshield as I drive up twisty little Rt. 88 through the Blue Ridge mountains to the school where I will work with eighth graders today as a part of western North Carolina’s homegrown “Together We Read” program. Now in its 6th year, “Together We Read” engages thousands of people in reading and discussing one book with regional connections, chosen by popular vote. This year, I happened to write it. In the novel, a schoolteacher comes to teach in a one-room school in remote Ashe County during the 188O’s. Now here I am in Ashe County myself, visiting the crackerjack Ashe County Middle School. I’m struck by this coincidence.

I am also dazzled by the range of events involved in this imaginative program.

“No holds barred! “ announces Rob Neufeld, librarian by training and impresario by inclination. “This is an attempt to reach 100 per cent of people of every age, in every community in western North Carolina, and to find any way possible to achieve that end. We are truly a populist program.” He lists dramatic presentations, bluegrass shows, folklore and oral history projects, hikes, and art contests along with readings, lectures, and discussions at over 100 sometimes isolated sites in 21 counties.

Reading as a group activity rather than a private act has become a national phenomenon, with Oprah and Harry Potter leading the way. Book clubs meet everywhere—on your TV, in your church, your workplace, your living room---arguably, keeping literary publishing alive. The National Endowment for the Arts has now instituted its own program, “The Big Read,” to address the crisis-level decline in reading found in its 2004 report, “Reading at Risk,” and confirmed by a new NEA report this week which says that in 2006, 15 to 24-year-olds spent only 7 to 10 minutes a day reading anything at all. Participating cities in “The Big Read” have shared such books as Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their eyes Were Watching God.”

“Our goals here in western North Carolina are to promote reading, writing, critical thinking, discussion of contemporary issues, and our heritage,” Neufeld says. “One of the most important functions of literature throughout history is to enable people to share and re-create a vision of themselves. Where do we come from? Where do we want to go? How do we understand the differences that are cropping up between us? We are using the books to continually re-shape our own epic. When we read Ron Rash’s novel ‘Saints at the River’ last year, we considered what role the rivers have played in our lives, and what’s happening to them now.” Many conservation and advocacy groups were involved in that public conversation.

Even North Carolina’s Poet Laureate Kaye Byer has gotten into this act, recently leading book group discussions in Sylva, where only four people showed up on a rainy night, and a larger group in Cashiers. “I want to show them all that their own region has its own literature,” Byer says. “They have writers here who can give them a voice, who can tell their story with authenticity. The place speaks through its writers, and the writers speak for the place. Yet we are losing our places----the mountains are under assault. I feel a sense of urgency about it.”

Pollution, drought, irresponsible development, and devastating new technologies such as mountaintop removal coal mining threaten the entire Appalachian region. Yet there is a growing sense of citizenship, too, a new pride of place.

When I was growing up in these mountains, I was always taught that culture was someplace else, and that when the time came, I’d be sent off to get some. Now everybody here realizes that we don’t have to go anyplace else to “get culture”----we’ve got our own, and we’ve had it all along. Each little community holds its own Bluegrass Festival, Hollering Contest, Fall Leaf Festival, Wooly Worm Days, or whatever. A broadening new economic revitalization is indicated by the buzzwords “cultural tourism” and “heritage tourism.” We’re proud of who we are.

My Ashe County middle schoolers are already getting this message. Heritage is still happening here, where Hannah Goodman writes that “If I could go anywhere, I would go sit in the old wooden rocking chair on my grandfather’s porch. He is 95. I feel like I can just be myself with him.” She loves ”the smell of tobacco, the sound of his voice.” Growing up in a family of bluegrass musicians, Holly Roten likes to “go down in the basement after a long picking session “ and just lay on the floor….even after everyone has left, the life from the music is still there.” Twenty-seven out of 48 students write that their “most special” place” is outside, “down by the creek” (Zeb Richardson), “under a giant, sheltering rhododendron” (Glenn Bailey) or “on the hill behind my house,” where Caroline Edwards already feels “a sense of time passing, of trying to preserve this place and this time.