The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Bless Me, Ultimately . . .

June 25, 2007
Washington, DC

David?s at the American Library Association convention today, making converts to the good news about the Big Read, talking to libraries that have just finished their Big Reads, and congratulating the new grantees who wander by the NEA booth to get advance copies of the educational materials for their communities or take a look at the materials for the other Big Read novels. So I?m stealing this opportunity to give you my take on the two-day orientation for Big Read organizers in Minneapolis last week, where NEA Director of Communications Felicia Knight and I presented a session for grantees on working with the media.

In my last guest blog, I alluded to the fact that there?s a lot of work that goes on ?behind the scenes? at NEA and at Arts Midwest in order to make the Big Read happen. I?ll spare you a recap and just say that sometimes -- when my to-do list seems several volumes long -- I need to be reminded why it is we work so hard on the Big Read, especially when many of us are also juggling several other projects.

I found my answer in the Orchard Ballroom of the Holiday Inn Select in Bloomington, Minnesota at approximately 1:30 pm on Tuesday, which is when each of the 117 Big Read teams shared what they thought was particularly unique about each of their programs. Although I?d read the list of new grantees several times, it wasn?t until the orientation that the sheer diversity of the Big Read grantees sank in. Of course libraries and centers for the book lead the list, which is to be expected -- bringing readers and great books into enduring relationships is their mission. Not-so-obvious grantees included the Georgia O?Keeffe Museum, the RI Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Will & Company -- a Los Angeles-based multicultural theater company, and two campuses of the State University of New York.

I lost track of how many great activities were mentioned as we figuratively crisscrossed the U.S., hearing organizers talk about how they were planning to use their Big Read events to address issues such as immigration, racial tension, the effects of war on veterans and their families, the preservation of community histories, domestic violence, and poverty.

A few highlights: The Brooklyn Public Library (NYC) will hold book discussions on To Kill a Mockingbird in 5 different languages reflecting the Borough?s diversity; the Arlington Public Library (VA), across the river from our offices in Washington, DC, is planning a community mural to celebrate Bless Me, Ultima; Spartanburg County Public Libraries (SC) has convinced Fitzgerald scholar (and Big Read Readers Circle Member) Matthew Bruccoli to lend his precious trove of Fitzgerald memorabilia for their Big Read of The Great Gatsby; and in Albuquerque, NM, Bernalillo County will host an event for curanderas in celebration of Rudolfo Anaya?s healer, Ultima.

Almost everything I read or see or hear in the media says that we live in a culture and at a time where the arts simply don?t matter. To misquote W.H. Auden, ?The arts make nothing happen.? Yet all 117 organizations represented in that banquet room -- and the 82 organizations that had previously hosted Big Reads -- had come to the conclusion that the arts, specifically literature, were a proven, immediate, and necessary way to address the growing laundry list of what?s not going quite right in our country today.

Which brings me back to why do I -- and all of the Big Read team -- work so hard on the program? Allow me to answer by borrowing just a few of the many diverse responses to question 6 of the Big Read application -- ?Briefly discuss why you wish to participate in the Big Read? -- from the 117 communities who are making the Big Read happen this fall and winter: ?to address the issues of race prevalent in most Southern cities and to discuss the importance of place and self-worth?; ?to provide an enjoyable experience that is intellectually stimulating and fosters a stronger sense of community?; because ?the book?s emphasis on developing and recognizing qualities like integrity, conscience, respect, bravery, and maturity are lessons that have never been more important?; because ?whether for instruction or recreation, reading informs the mind and expands the human spirit?; because ?we have felt the reality of life as a community and have recovered through the essential grit of our people and our community togetherness?; and because ?conversations with others about our values, ethics, and the important questions of our time are one of the things that make us civic and social persons.?