The Big Read Blog (Archive)

On the ‘Old Potomak Bluffs’

February 7, 2007
Washington, DC

"John Carroll chose the site [for Georgetown University] on the 'old Potomak [sic] bluffs' in preference to present Capitol Hill, which he regarded as 'too far in the country'. Georgetown's history, from the early days when students followed a regimen designed 'to implant virtue and destroy the seeds of vice,' has been enriched by many vivid personalities." -- The WPA Guide to Washington, D.C.

Here at the NEA we try not to make too many grand claims for the Big Read, careful to describe the program as "helping" to restore reading to the heart of American culture, rather than performing any restorations single-handedly or overnight. If, along the way, we manage to implant virtue and destroy the seeds of vice anyway, well, that'll be gravy.

The Big Read visited those "old Potomak bluffs" of Georgetown just last Thursday, courtesy of an invitation from Professor Maureen Corrigan to address her class on Public Intellectuals. (And if the idea of me addressing a class on Public Intellectuals strikes anybody out there as amusing, just shut up.)

Professor Corrigan, in addition to teaching a full course load, reviewing books for Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and writing her own book, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books, belongs to what we at the Big Read call our Reader's Circle. The Reader's Circle consists of 22 smart folks from various walks of life -- including Professor Corrigan and everybody from the newsman Jim Lehrer to chanteuse Aimee Mann -- who help us pick all the books on the Big Read's growing list.

So Professor Corrigan introduces me to her class, and I'm handing around copies of the NEA's Reading at Risk report (about how fewer than half of Americans read for pleasure anymore), and I'm following up with brochures on the Big Read -- and a beautiful thing happens. They get it. The earnest bearded guy interning with E.J. Dionne gets it. The Alabaman who lights up when I mention Carson McCullers, she gets it. And the cineaste, who lights up after class when she can finally smoke, gets it. They get it so much, they ask all the right tough questions: How do we choose the books? Does F. Scott Fitzgerald really need the NEA's help? And then they get it even more.

Bless 'em, they don't want to be the only surviving readers left in the whole country. There'd be a kind of rugged, embattled heroism to that, a certain Peabody-among-the Philistines inverse glamour I'm not immune to myself, but in the end it's just too lonesome. I'd much rather feel outclassed by a gas station attendant or candy striper who's better read than I am. Because that's the public intellectual whose disappearance I fear most. Not the earnest émigré on the faculty of the New School for Social Research. Not the scribbler in a garret who cobbles together a living freelancing reviews and essays. No, the public intellectual I can't manage without is precisely that: a member of the public -- nontenured, unpublished -- whose imagination can conjure up anything except a life without reading.

Next stop, Connecticut, and more down the Big Road . . .