It’s Not Just a Read, It’s a Big Read: A Lesson Before Dying


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Can a book change a mind or heart? Can it challenge or change a community? That’s one of the ideas behind having groups read the same book and engage it through a variety of activities and discussion forums. It’s become common in many cities and universities – and this isn’t Knoxville’s first go at the idea. This year’s book is Earnest Gaines‘ A Lesson Before Dying.

It couldn’t really be a more timely book given the conversations and confrontations we’ve had over race in the last year. Have we attained racial justice? Are courts fair to all citizens? Is there a difference in treatment in our country based on the color of your skin? These are questions to ponder as the book explores parallel issues.

Ernest Gaines, an African-American born in Louisiana in 1933, at age fifteen moved to be with his mother in California, where he became an avid reader of southern fiction. Eventually studying at Stanford with fellow students Wendell Berry and Ken Kesey, it was his fourth novel that won him acclaim: The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971). The book became a television movie starring Cicely Tyson in 1974 and won nine Emmy Awards. His seventh novel, A Gathering of Old Men (1983) also garnered wide attention. His next novel, published a decade later (1993) became his most celebrated. A Lesson Before Dying was nominated for a Pulitzer and won the National Book Award.


The book follows two men, each impacted in very different ways by the fact that they are African-American. Jefferson is a black man accused of a murder he did not commit and ultimately sentenced to death. Grant, a local teacher begins to visit him and the two take a very different, though similar journey together in the months leading up to Jefferson’s scheduled execution. It’s a tremendously powerful and provocative book.

I had the pleasure to meet Ernest Gaines in 2001 and to chat with him a bit. I really love his work and we share some roots in Louisiana via my father’s family. It was definitely a brief conversation that cemented my affection for the man who was as warm and patient as he could have been to a fan no doubt saying the same things he’d heard from a thousand others. I’m thrilled that we’ll be looking into his work as a community.

Clarence Brown

So what is this Big Read thing? You’ll find all the activities via that link. Everything gets kicked off with party two weeks from today in the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office a 1101 Liberty Street. From there follows too many events to list here, though you’ll find a complete list here.

Highlights include a production of the play by Romulus Linney based on the book at the Clarence Brown Theatre running from February 24 – March 13. The performances include matinees for school groups, lectures and post-play discussions. Movie screenings include “Dead Man Walking” (overlapping theme) at Lawson McGhee February 7 and “Say It Loud” at the Hodges Library Auditorium Feb. 21 (civil rights era footage of Knoxville). There will be forums, lectures and numerous discussion groups all over the county – including several downtown.


The book group to which I’ve belonged to for twenty years, the Southern Literature Book Club which meets at Union Avenue Bookstore has discussed it before, many years ago. This coming month we’ll take it up again, so you’re welcome to join us in our little discussion (message me if you’d like to be added to our list). I think it’s a good thing for a community to have a directed, focused conversation like this. It’s a shift from our usual focus on the latest meme, scandal or celebrity gossip and that can’t be a bad thing. Get a copy. Read this book. Think. Discuss.