Wolff Comes to Whatcom

by Matt Benoit

Make no mistake, he said: a true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life.” –Tobias Wolff, from “Old School.”

Over a month of community events surrounding this year’s WhatcomReads! book, “Old School,” will come to a close at Whatcom on February 8 with a visit from award-winning author Tobias Wolff.

Wolff, a Stanford professor, is perhaps best known for his 1989 memoir, “This Boy’s Life.” The book chronicles his childhood and adolescence, part of which was spent in the rural Skagit County town of Concrete, in the 1950s. The book was adapted into a film in 1993 starring Robert De Niro and a young Leonardo DiCaprio as Wolff.

“Old School,” published in 2003, tells the coming-of-age story of a teen at an all-boy’s prep school in New England during his senior year of 1960 to 1961, and the consequences of his actions in trying to win a writing contest before Ernest Hemingway visits the school.

This is the second year of the WhatcomReads! program, which in 2009 brought Sherman Alexie to Whatcom County for several speaking engagements with local high schools and colleges.

The aim of WhatcomReads!, as stated on their Web site, is “a community-wide reading and discussion program intended to encourage all Whatcom County residents to read the same book and create a county-wide book club experience.” It was modeled after the Seattle Reads program, which began in 1998.
Last year, the Bellingham Public Library and its partners won a $15,000 Big Read grant from the National Endowment for the Arts after establishing the program in 2008 with two federal grants totaling $14,000.

As for why “Old School” was chosen to be read, Whatcom library director Linda Lambert said the selection for WhatcomReads! was influenced by the possibility of a Big Read grant, the purpose of which is to revitalize the role of literary reading in American culture.

“It costs a lot of money to put on programs like these,” said Lambert in an e-mail. “None of the libraries on this committee are resource-rich…so we have to fund raise.” Lambert added that Wolff’s appearance cost $5,000 plus expenses.

General criterion for selecting the book states that the author must be available to visit Whatcom County and be an “interesting and engaging” speaker. The book must have a general appeal for many types of readers as well as “cultural, historical, or local appeal.”
The WhatcomReads! committee, which makes the decision, is made up of about 20 representatives from a number of community organizations including Whatcom, Bellingham Technical College, the Whatcom County Library System, Western Washington University, the Northwest Indian College, and Village Books among others.

Lambert said a core group of seven or eight members, including herself, attends every committee meeting and carries out the necessary work, which includes public relations, as well as the “read and release” portion of the program, in which several hundred copies of the chosen book are released “into the wild,” where anyone can read them and then either pass them on directly to another person or leave in a public place. Six-hundred copies of “Old School” were designated for release throughout Whatcom County.

In addition, Whatcom has two copies of the book available for checkout from its library. The Bellingham Public Library also has an audio tape of the book. Those interested in finding “wild” copies can go to www.bookcrossing.com and find the WhatcomReads! profile.

In addition, there are two writing contests, several film screenings, as well as book and plagiarism discussions held at locations throughout the county. “Personally, I liked that there were some interesting spinoff activities we could do,” said Lambert.

Lambert said she actually enjoyed Wolff’s memoir “This Boy’s Life” more than “Old School” due to it not only being true, but because it has many references to Whatcom and Skagit counties, including Wolff stealing from a Bellingham drug store.

Still, she liked the book. “I must admit that one reason is because it’s about my generation and the authors that were popular in the 60s—[Robert] Frost, Hemingway, Ayn Rand,” she said. “Also, the whole idea of a boarding school for boys, a school that is consumed with literary fervor, is such an anomaly in my world. I loved learning about it.”

-Editor’s note: The Horizon attempted to contact Tobias Wolff for an interview but was unsuccessful in doing so. Wolff’s visit to Whatcom will be on Monday, Feb. 8. He will speak in the Syre Student Center Auditorium from 7:30 to 9 p.m. The event is free and will be open to the general public.

What faculty and staff are saying about “Old School”

Bob Winters, division chair for arts and humanities at Whatcom, said Tobias Wolff’s novel sent him on an enjoyable nostalgia trip.

“Having been a student in a graduate fiction writing program myself,” he said in an e-mail, “I recognized the bravado and banter, the posing and back-biting, the deeply hidden ambitions and insecurities of being a young writer among other young writers. The protagonist’s struggle to discover an honest voice was deeply perceptive and accurate—it had to have come from Wolff’s own experience.”

Although Winters said he was disappointed by the last two sections of the book, which to him felt disconnected from the rest of the book, he’s recommend “Old School” to students, especially those who are “young, gifted, literary-minded.”

“It has lessons to offer,” Winters said of the book, “that might not be learned so pleasurably in personal experience.”

Many faculty and staff said they’d also read Wolff’s memoir, “This Boy’s Life,” and really enjoyed it. Ron Leatherbarrow, vice president for instruction at Whatcom, said he thought Wolff drew on a lot of the same material for both books.

“The memoir is a very painful account of adolescence, a challenging time of transition under the best of circumstances,” he said in an e-mail. “The novel captures a good deal of the pain of Wolff’s life, but the focus is more on the educators in his life and not the home life. I think it’s a good choice as a college-wide read because the content and the themes have impact for all of us.”

Ara Taylor, who runs the circulation and reserve services at the library, said her favorite parts of “Old School” were the ones which focused on the odd interactions the narrator has with some of his classmates.

“There are some vivid characters,” she said, but added that she was not particularly taken with the portrayals of Robert Frost or Ayn Rand, two of the three famous authors in the book.

Heather Williams, who works in the library as the technical services assistant, said she connected to “Old School” because she really enjoys writing, as well as the notion of meeting famous authors.

Williams said she’s personally had the privilege of meeting science fiction author Neil Gaiman, and looks forward to seeing Wolff in-person, whom she says touches on a lot of universal themes for people, including “wanting to be somebody and not really figuring out how to do that.”

Williams added that she identified with the main character’s case of writer’s block. “He’s always thinking about writing but not actually doing it,” she said. “If you’re a writer, you just need to sit down and write.”

A number of community events are scheduled for both before and after Wolff’s Feb. 8 appearances at Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College:

Jan. 27
3 to 4 p.m.
“Old School” brown bag discussion with WCC library staff members Ara Taylor and Linda Lambert in Cascade Hall, Rm. 104. Chocolate, cookies, and drinks provided.

4:30 to 6 p.m.
“The Art of Plagiarism,” a student and faculty panel discussion exploring the “appropriation, homage, and ‘borrowing’ in art.” At Western Washington University in the Wilson Library Presentation Room (WL164).

6 to 7 p.m.
“Old School” book discussion at the Sumas Library.

Sumas Library
451 2nd Street
Sumas, WA

Jan. 28
7 to 8:30 p.m.
Discussion of works by Robert Frost at the Lynden Library.

216 4th Street
Lynden, WA

Jan. 30
1 to 2:30 p.m.
“Old School” book discussion at the Blaine Library.

610 3rd Street
Blaine, WA

Feb. 1
7 to 9 p.m.
“Old School” book discussion at Village Books in Fairhaven.

1210 11th Street

Feb. 4
7 to 8:30 p.m.
“Old School” book discussion at the Lynden Library.

216 4th Street
Lynden, WA

Feb. 8
7:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Tobias Wolff LIVE—“Old School” author Tobias Wolff will give a free presentation in the Syre Student Center Auditorium at Whatcom Community College.

7:30 to 9:30 p.m.
“Old School” book discussion at the Lummi Island library.

Island Library
2144 South Nugent Road
Lummi Island

Feb. 17
6:30 to 7:30 p.m.

“Old School” book discussion at the Fairhaven Library.

1117 12th St

Feb. 21
4 to 5:30 p.m.

Author’s reception for winners of the “Deception” student writing contest for WhatcomReads!

Village Books
1210 11th Street