NEA Arts Magazine

Uniting Communities Through Reading

The Arts Endowment Launches the Big Read

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Dana Gioia at a podium with a large collage projects of covers of the four Big Read books

NEA Chairman Gioia introduces the launch of the Big Read initiative in New York City. Photo: Tom Pich.

"We want people of all ages across the country to enjoy the social aspects of reading and the enthusiasm that's generated by discussing a good book in a library, with a neighbor, a classmate, or a co-worker."

That's how Chairman Dana Gioia describes the aims of the Big Read, a new national reading program by the NEA based on popular citywide reading programs and designed to revitalize the role of reading in American life. The Big Read will involve more than 100 communities - large and small - from across the United States, each coming together to read and celebrate a classic American novel.

In May, from the Weill Recital Hall stage at New York's Carnegie Hall, the Chairman announced the launch of the Big Read to an audience of publishers, writers, educators, librarians, and press. Joining Chairman Gioia for the announcement was Dr. Anne- Imelda M. Radice, Director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The NEA's lead partner in the program, IMLS has pledged $1 million to support the participation of local libraries in the program.

"Libraries are ‘information central' in communities everywhere," noted Dr. Radice. "Encouraging library participation will assure that the Big Read has big impact in cities and towns across the United States."

Additional program partners include The Boeing Company, which will support the program on military bases and surrounding communities. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Community Foundations of America also will support the Big Read through a matching grants program.

Former Colorado Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, now President and CEO of the Association of American Publishers, praised the program at the launch event. "We applaud the National Endowment for the Arts for raising public awareness of the serious decline in literary readership in this country and for taking positive steps to stem and reverse that decline... We know that books are magical: they can be powerful forces for changing lives; they can be just plain fun!"

"I'm not a betting man, but I'd wager those who join the Big Read will be hooked on the joys of great literature," added Chairman Gioia.

Senator Tim Johnson  Senator John Thune  Representative Stephanie Herseth

South Dakota Senators Tim Johnson and John Thune and Representative Stephanie Herseth encourage the Sioux Falls community to participate in reading To Kill a Mockingbird as part of the Big Read. Posters courtesy of the South Dakota Center for the Book.

Excitement over the Big Read grew from the startling figures in Reading at Risk, which documented a dramatic decline in literary reading among all age groups, ethnic groups, and education levels. Even more disturbing, the report showed that a decline in reading paralleled a retreat from participation in civic and cultural life.

In December 2005, the Arts Endowment kicked off the pilot phase of the Big Read with managing support from Arts Midwest. Ten communities - ranging in size from rural Enterprise, Oregon, with a population of fewer than 2,000, to the metropolis of Miami and Dade Counties, Florida, to the entire state of Arkansas - received grants of up to $40,000 to facilitate month-long community-wide reading programs. Each community chose one of four classic novels: Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, or Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. (Four additional novels will be available for the January 2007 start of the full program: Willa Cather's My Antonia, Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club.)

As part of the Big Read, the NEA will provide communities with reader's and teacher's guides for each novel and advertising materials including posters and television public service announcements. Communities also will receive audio guide CDs with commentary on each novel by luminaries such as actors Robert Redford and Robert Duvall and retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

As with the pilot communities, it will be left to each city to plan specific activities around each novel based on events, venues, and materials unique to its region. For instance, visitors to Boise, Idaho's hands-on science museum experienced an exhibit featuring technology prefigured in Fahrenheit 451. In Sioux City, South Dakota, a dramatization of the courtroom scene in To Kill a Mockingbird was well attended by the community. To kick off the citywide reading of The Great Gatsby, the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library in Alabama sponsored a "Roaring '20s" street party. Many of the pilot communities also hosted read-a-thons with local celebrities, including one at a local Krispy Kreme store. Additional community events ranged from film screenings to discussion groups to the distribution of free books to theater performances and recitations.

Marie Pyko, public services manager at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library and one of the organizers of Topeka's Big Read of Their Eyes Were Watching God, spoke at the May launch about her experience with the program. She reported that the level of community involvement in the program was astounding. "The Big Read inspired more than 155 community groups to participate. Our online survey was filled out by more than 5,000 participants, and the surveys keep coming in."

Proposals are currently being accepted for the next phase of the Big Read. For more information or to apply, please visit www.neabigread.org.