Saturday, March 15, 2008

Ivan Ilyich is dead, but you're not

The experience of death in 19th century Russia was, of course, much different than ours is today. It was neither hidden, antiseptic, nor handled by discreet professionals. Medical science had far to go, a predictable percentage of children did not survive into adulthood, and death, like birth, took place at home. Families cared for their dead as well as for the living. They knew, inescapably, that death was part of life.

But, one's own death -- ahh! -- the death of one's self -- somehow that is a different matter! In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy explores the death of one ordinary man. "Ivan Ilyich's life had been most simple and commonplace-- and most horrifying." He had lived his life according to what he perceived were the expectations of his society and his family. His youth, marriage, and career followed predictable paths; he sought only to have pleasant times amid pleasant surroundings. Then, a minor accident turns out to be the harbinger of something much bigger and "The awful, terrible act of his dying" begins.

This 80-page novella is the work chosen for the Urbana-Champaign community-wide Big Read for 2008. Through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts received by the University of Illinois and co-sponsored by The Urbana Free Library among others, events will be presented from March 30-April 27. A full calendar of events and other resources may be found at the Big Read website.

Two events will be held here at the library: a special after-hours reception on April 18th (6:00 - 9:00) and a book discussion led my Mary Wilkes Towner on April 27 (2:00-3:00). In addition, the library has purchased multiple copies of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and has both print and audio Reader's Guides available. Ask for them at the Reference Desks.

Leo Tolstoy was at least partially inspired to write The Death of Ivan Ilyich because of his own fears about dying and the need he felt to confront them. He described this work as "a means of communion among people." This community Big Read is another means of communion among people. Join us.

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