The Big Readers of Staten Island

On a recent Saturday afternoon, dozens of locals gathered at a library in Richmondtown, Staten Island, to read Mark Twain together.

Some came in 19th-century garb. A fifth-grader dressed up as Twain himself. A couple played Twain-era songs, while children decorated a fence.

The National Endowment for the Arts is currently sponsoring a series of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" happenings on Staten Island, as part of The Big Read, an initiative to revitalize literary reading through a community discussion of a single book.

The host of the series, Staten Island OutLOUD, was one of 76 literary organizations nationwide chosen to take part in the program.

Organizers are trying to attract an audience unfamiliar to the work with events like "Make a Raft, Make Valentines!" "American Idol: A Fresh Look at Tom Sawyer," and an evening reading in a cemetery. 

"Some people are intimidated to read classic literature," said OutLOUD executive director Beth Gorrie, an attorney by day who founded the literary performance group in 2001 as a way to explore books and ideas with the ever-changing, diverse Staten Island community. "'Moby-Dick? Oh my God, it's 500 pages.' They're scared before they start," said Gorrie. "We try to make it fun and easy."

Every year, Staten Island OutLOUD reads James Joyce's "Ulysses." They have read Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" by a road, outside a deli in Richmond Terrace. They have read Confucius, the Koran, even Henry Rollins. One year, they staged Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" in a bar on Staten Island's South Shore.

"We didn't think that Chaucer would necessarily be popular," said Gorrie, but the reading was a hit. "There were some people who could have taught a course on Chaucer there, and then there were people who had never heard of the guy."