News Bureau | University of Illinois

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign logo


2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008
Email to a friend envelope icon for send to a friend

Read Tolstoy, share excitement of literature…and pass it on

Melissa Mitchell, News Editor

Lynda Park and Richard Herman
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Lynda Park, left, the associate director of the U. of I.'s Russian, East European and Eurasian Center, is taking the lead on organizing local Big Read activities. The National Endowment for the Arts is funding the initiative, with major support from Chancellor Richard Herman and assistance from other units.


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Ivan Ilyich is dead, but you’re not.

That’s the catchy slogan that will appear soon on area billboards and other publicity materials to arouse Champaign-Urbana residents’ interest in a community wide initiative encouraging people to discover the joy of reading classic literature – and sharing the experience with others. 

The effort, which will start quietly and privately in homes, libraries, coffee shops and other favorite reading corners throughout the community before kicking into full gear in a more public manner with a series of events March 30 through April 27, is part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ nationwide “Big Read” campaign. The program began in 2007 in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums, and in cooperation with Arts Midwest to create a nation of readers. The NEA’s goal is make it the largest federal reading program in U.S. history.

According to NEA chairman Dana Gioia, the initiative – which locally is being led by the University of Illinois – seeks to address a decline in reading for pleasure among American adults. That decline was indicated in a 2004 NEA report, “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.”

In response, the NEA launched the Big Read program “to revitalize the role of literary reading in American popular culture,” Gioia said.

Back to those billboards ... and the obvious questions they are sure to provoke: Who is Ivan Ilyich? And, why should anyone care?

“Ivan Ilyich is the title character in the book our community will read: ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich,’ a short novel by the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy,” said Lynda Park.

Park is the associate director of the U. of I.’s Russian, East European and Eurasian Center. The center, along with the university’s department of Slavic languages and literatures, School of Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics, and Center for Translation Studies, is taking the lead on organizing local Big Read activities. Park and Slavic department head Harriet Murav are coordinating the effort with assistance from other community partners, which include the Champaign Public Library and Urbana Free Library; area high schools; Illini Union Bookstore; Borders; Pages for All Ages; the Dalkey Archives; Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette; and WILL-AM.

The local initiative is funded by the NEA, with additional major support from the Office of the Chancellor, and assistance from other campus units.

The U. of I. is one of 127 communities nationwide to receive a “Big Read” grant from the NEA during the first half of 2008, and one of only four U.S. communities to take part in the inaugural U.S. component called “Big Read Russia.” That program began last year in Russia, in the Ivanovo and Saratov regions, where residents read Harper Lee’s classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Park said that among the four U.S. communities selected to be part of Big Read Russia – the others are Muncie, Ind.; Enid, Okla.; and Ephrata, Pa. – Champaign-Urbana will host the most comprehensive program.

“Ours is the flagship program for the Tolstoy Big Read,” she said, noting that two factors distinguish it from the others.

Leo Tolstoy
Click photo to enlarge
Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" was first published in 1887. The great-great grandson of Tolstoy will speak at the kickoff local Big Read event March 30 at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center.

“We are able to infuse the expertise available at the U. of I., which has one of the leading Russian studies programs in United States,” Park said. “That, combined with the breadth of the community involvement, makes our program unique.”

Park said mass copies of “Ivan Ilyich” should be available for loan at local libraries and for purchase at bookstores soon. Paperback editions of the pocket-sized book available for sale are purposely priced affordably. The novel itself is “a quick read,” she said, at 113 pages, including the introduction.

While, on the surface, a classic Russian novel may not sound like something that would appeal widely to 21st-century readers, local Big Read organizers expect people will actually find ways in which they can relate to the title character.

“Ivan Ilyich, an ordinary family man with a successful career as a judge in St. Petersburg, finds himself confronted by a fatal illness that begins on the day he finishes redecorating his apartment,” Murav wrote in a synopsis of the book. “A few unpleasant symptoms – a strange taste in his mouth and a nagging pain in his side – grow into unbearable pain and suffering.

“Ivan Ilyich’s illness turns everything in his life upside down. He is compelled to re-examine his entire life according to a new, severe law of right and wrong. His illness and self-examination take him on a journey away from the world of work and social life, away from colleagues, friends, doctors, his wife and children to an unfamiliar territory of the medical world, where he feels humiliated and alone, but where he also begins to find his inner self.”

The local Big Read will formally start at a public event, scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. on March 30 at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center, 601 S. Lincoln Ave., Urbana. The event is scheduled to include a presentation by Vladimir Tolstoy, the Russian author’s great-great grandson, who plans to come from Russia for the occasion.

The mayors of Champaign and Urbana will designate March 28 through April 6 as International Education Week. They also plan to proclaim March 30 as Russian Culture Day.

Other activities planned through April include a keynote lecture by Michael Denner, professor of Russian studies, Stetson University, at 7 p.m. on April 3 at the Champaign Public Library; a dramatic performance of the novel by Champaign Central High School students at the school’s theater, at 7 p.m. on April 4; the “Death and the Meaning of Life” film festival, which begins at 3 p.m. on April 9 at the Virginia Theater, 203 W. Park St., Champaign; and a party and talk for members of area book clubs at 7 p.m. on April 18 at the Urbana Free Library.

Additional highlights include talks, panels, and performances on the U. of I. campus and throughout the community; WILL-AM radio and book-club discussions; and a Krannert Art Museum tour. The book will be incorporated into the curriculum in some area schools and at the U. of I., where Murav will teach an eight-week undergraduate course on the novel. It also will serve as a springboard for a medical panel discussion on death and dying involving area physicians and students in the College of Medicine’s Medical Scholars Program, and will be the subject of discussions among a group of prisoners at the Champaign County Jail, organized and led by U. of I. speech communications professor Stephen Hartnett.

A complete list of events and activities planned is available at