The Big Read Blog (Archive)

56 Days Till the February Big Read Application Deadline

December 18, 2007
Washington, DC

Pretty soon they're going to have to start a special portion of the paper devoted exclusively to alarming news about reading. Can't you just imagine it? Right between BUSINESS DAY, PAGE C1, and SCIENCE TIMES, PAGE D1, please turn to KISS LITERACY GOODBYE!, SPECIAL ILLUSTRATED SECTION.

First came the NEA's elegiac To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence ( This delivered the cheering news that, the less you read, the likelier you are to wind up jobless, in jail, and funny-looking.

Then, just when I thought it was safe to go back in the paper, today brings tidings that J.K. Rowling's American publisher, Scholastic, has commissioned a series of books called The 39 Clues, written by a tag-team of young-adult writers and augmented by a formidable online onslaught of "web-based games, collectors cards and cash prizes." According to writer Rick Riordan, who will inaugurate the series come September with The Maze of Bones, "Some kids are always going to prefer games over books. But if you can even reach a few of those kids and give them an experience with a novel that makes them think, ?Hey, reading can be another way to have an adventure,' then that's great. Then I've done my job."

Way to aim high, Rick. This news item is also notable for its "Law & Order"-ization of creativity. Just as that TV show pioneered the interchangeability of actors as a way of lowering the price of popular talent, Scholastic appears eager to sell books without writers, or at least without the recurring name recognition that makes writers so all-fired expensive.

It only gets better. Also according to this morning's paper, 545 writers have just sent a letter to 10 Downing Street imploring Prime Minister Gordon Brown to mandate at least an hour per schoolday of reading instruction. Reportedly, one-fifth of 11-year olds leave primary school without meeting the minimum level of reading competence. (No word on how students are faring on their O-levels, or tripos, or other mysterious British academic hurdles that are fun to say.) "As authors" -- per signatories including the versatile genre writer Ian Rankin, poet laureate Andrew Motion, underrated god Nick Hornby, and the inarguably literate Jackie Collins -- "we are deeply concerned at the low levels of childhood literacy across Britain.

When reading is tanking in England, traditionally the lone holdout with steady reading rates among industrialized nations, it's definitely time to muster the militia. Hence the less than imaginative, but forgivably necessary, title of today's blogpost. The Big Read isn't going to solve this country's reading crisis overnight, or even singlehandedly. But it's a start, and -- take it from someone who's seen more Big Reads up close than anyone else has, or is ever likely to -- it works. That's why I urge every city or town within reach of this blog to pull together an application by Feb. 12, 2008. If you've never done a citywide reading program, where everybody in town reads the same book for a month and hashes it out six ways from Sunday, The Big Read is your perfect bunny slope. And if you've done one but want to do it better, then The Big Read offers a nearly surefire way to roll it up a notch. Aside from the many communities who come to us for the first time, it would be interesting to tabulate who re-applies to us more: Big Read towns who've never given it a go solo, or the cities who've both gone it alone and thrown it their lot with us, and recognize how much easier it is to undertake something like this with a little help.

Either way, here at the NEA we hope all the Big Read rookies out there won't sit back and let the re-uppers have all the fun. It's easy and just one click away at

And now, pardon me while I get back to work writing the Mark Twain readers' guide, coming this fall to a city or town near you?